Risky Business: Fireworks Employees at Much Less Risk than Fireworks Consumers

Liz Carey

Slatington, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) – On June 30, 2017, an ignition malfunction at a Pennsylvania fireworks company badly injured a female employee at Celebration Fireworks in Slatington, PA.

And while the injury was life-threatening, incidents like that are rare in the pyrotechnics industry, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA).

“The US manufacturers (are at) less than five percent of the commercial fireworks in the world now,” she said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com. “But there’s really no database for (injuries to fireworks manufacturers employees), and thank God because that means there are so few.”

Heckman said fireworks manufacturing is a risky business. After all, she said, you’re dealing with explosives. But that risk is why fireworks manufacturers work so closely with OSHA, and insist on training and safety practices that ensure worker safety.

“Pyrotechnics in America is a very close knit industry,” she said. “If a member of the industry notices that a product is not performing up to standards, they will tell other members. Likewise, we analyze every incident at the site and we will modify practices as needed if it is warranted.”

In the Slatington event, John Kemps, the owner of Celebration Fireworks, said accidents do happen, however.

Kemps told The Allentown Morning Call that an electric match may have malfunctioned and caused the blast. The electric match devices are attached to firework shells and used to ignite them.

“Accidents unfortunately do happen in this industry,” Kemps told the paper last year. “I am quite distraught because we have an employee who is injured quite badly. I also know that the public wants what we do for the holiday, and we don’t want to disappoint them. But I am worried about her.”

According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, only four deaths were caused by fireworks in 2016.

On May 15, a 38-year-old man in Arizona was fatally injured in his garage when he was attempting to manufacture his own fireworks.

On July 4, a 42-year-old man in Florida suffered fatal injuries when the device he was lighting malfunctioned.

On July 5, a 26-year-old man in Kansas fell when a mortar-type fireworks device exploded in his hand near his chest. Witnesses said he had been firing the fireworks off of his roof when an explosion knocked him backwards and off the roof.

Shortly after Jan. 1, a 27-year-old man in Georgia died when the man lifted a firework above his head and the device exploded from the bottom and struck his neck.

To put the incidents of fireworks injury into perspective though, the APA said fireworks injuries account for only 4 percent of all injuries in the US.

“Over 32 million Americans sustained non-fatal injuries according to data compiled by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control,” the APA said in a statement. “The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that for that same year, approximately 13,000 Americans were injured in fireworks-related incidents. Fireworks, therefore, are involved in only a fraction of the injuries – just 0.04 percent of all injuries. That means that 99.96 percent of injuries in this country are associated with something other than fireworks.”

And the organization points out that while sales of fireworks in the US have risen from 29 million pounds in 1976 to more than 268 million pounds in 2016, fireworks injuries have declined. The APA credits industry safety education efforts and better quality products, as well as loosened fireworks laws at the state and municipal levels.

“Serious misuse of fireworks devices, as well as the use of illegal explosives, account for a large portion of these fireworks-related injuries,” the APA said. In fact, it said more people are injured every year by barbeque grills (20,000 people) and baseballs (120,000).

Heckman said employee injuries at fireworks manufacturers were more common overseas, but that the American fireworks industry is working with those manufacturers to make the industry safer.

Earlier this year, a man in England, Richard Pearson, director of SP Fireworks in Baswich, Stafford, was sentenced to 10 years after a massive explosion and fire at his manufacturing plant took the lives of an employee and customer of the plant in 2014. Pearson denied being responsible for the explosion and resulting deaths.

But fireworks producers in other countries routinely come to the United States to see how things are done, Heckman said.

“We share that knowledge, and our safety practices and training principles, as much as we can, as an industry,” she said.