Fatal Fireworks

OSHA & Lessons from the Mad Bomber Tragedy

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: June 29th, 2012
Topics: Fire Protection |

fireworks boatThe date is July 3, 1997 at about 9:30 p.m. Mad Bomber Productions is staging its annual Fourth of July fireworks display from barges in the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois

The show is nearing its end and the crew prepares a rapid succession launch of 8 inch shells from 7 side by side mortars. Using a handheld flare, the crew chief lights the fuse of mortars 1, 2 and 3. But that’s as far as he gets.

The shell from mortar 3 is what in the industry they call a “low blow.” It arcs only 10 feet into the air before it starts to descend. “Fire in the hole,” somebody yells.

But it’s too late. The shell crashes into the deck of the barge, igniting other shells stored in the wooden “ready box.”

Thinking it’s part of the show, the spectators on the shore applaud wildly at the enormous fireball that engulfs the vessel.

Two crew members suffer severe burns. A third injures his ankle but manages to cling to the side of the barge and is eventually rescued.

They’re the lucky ones. 42-year-old technician Raymond Hernandez is killed by the blast.

Crew members Ralph Duty, age 47, and his cousin, Rick Cisneros, 45, leap off the prow and into the river. They’re not wearing life jackets. Their bodies are found downriver the next morning.

OSHA’s Response
OSHA fines Mad Bomber $154,000. In addition to failing to equip crewmen with life jackets, OSHA cites the company for violating the “general duty clause,” Sec. 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to keep the workplace safe from “recognized hazards,” because it didn’t take measures required by the voluntary consensus standard NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 1123: Code for Fireworks Displays:

  • Ensuring that the “ready box” containing pyrotechnic shells had a self-closing lid;
  • Putting all the shells in the “ready box”; and
  • Keeping the mortars spaced at least 5 inches apart.
Moral of the Mad Bomber Case

Mad Bomber isn’t just about fireworks and fireworks companies; it’s relevant to any company whose industry recognizes a voluntary standard like NFPA.

The lesson: OSHA can and will use failure to adopt measures required by the voluntary standards your industry recognizes as evidence that you didn’t control a recognized hazard as required by the general duty clause. Other indications of industry recognition that OSHA inspectors look for in handing out general duty clause citations:

  • Statements of health and safety experts that work in the industry or are familiar with working conditions within it;
  • Initiation of abatement methods by members of the industry;
  • Manufacturers’ warnings on equipment or in literature “that are relevant to the hazard”;
  • Industry studies demonstrating awareness of the hazard and studies conducted by unions or employee representatives that the industry has been made aware of;
  • Government and insurance studies that the industry is aware of and recognizes as valid;
  • State and local laws which are currently enforced against companies in the industry—however, the FOM recommends “corroborating evidence of recognition” in these cases; and
  • National consensus standards published by organizations like ANSI and NFPA, provided that the industry participated in the committee that drafted them. Standards addressing the hazard that the industry didn’t help draft are just corroboration of recognition.

More Help with Fireworks & Fire Safety

* Make sure your workers get the facts on fireworks with this Fireworks Safety Handout.

For more compliance material and information on fire protection, see the Fire Protection Compliance Center

Help Minimize Risk of General Duty Clause/Voluntary Standard Citations by Reading the Following Material:
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