In 2010 VSE corporation (VSE) contracted Donaldson Enterprises Inc. (DEI) to dispose of three shipments of contraband fireworks.
Prior to this contract DEI’s work did not include disposal of fireworks (Hardy, 2013). The fireworks were composed of mortar tubes packaged together and designed to fire consecutively (Hudson, 2013). The tubes consisted of black powder light-charge (mostly potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulphur) and an aerial shell, containing a pyrotechnic composition (Hudson, 2013). When ignited, the lift-charge propels the shell into the sky where it explodes with bright colours.
The disposal work was performed outside a bunker-like facility where the fireworks were being stored (US Chemical Safety Board, 2013). The process entailed removing the aerial shells from the mortar tubes, cutting the shells open, and then soaking them in diesel. Black powder from the burst charges was collected and stored without disposal (US Chemical Safety Board, 2013). To speed up the process, DEI disassembled large quantities of fireworks while waiting for batches to soak. On April 8, 2011, five contractors were performing disposal work while a sixth cleaned and stacked boxes of disassembled components inside the storage area (Hardy, 2013).
When it began to rain, the contractors quickly moved tools, chairs, boxes of shells, black powder, and partially disassembled fireworks into the entrance of the bunker (Hardy, 2013). Seconds later an explosion and fire occurred inside the bunker, killing five of the contractors and injuring the sixth (US Chemical Safety Board, 2013). This explosion occurred due to various reasons. Firstly, the contractors used unsafe practices, they amassed a large quantity of explosive materials near tools and in containers that had the potential to produce sparks and static discharge (US Chemical Safety Board, 2013). Additionally, “VSE deferred to DEI as experts and lacked the technical expertise to properly select or oversee DEI’s disposal work, and VSE’s procurement review of DEI did not address health or safety” (Hudson, 2013). Furthermore, no regulations/standards established safety requirements, or provided guidance on ways to dispose of fireworks, or addressed the hazards that exist when disassembling fireworks and the accumulation of explosive elements (Hudson, 2013). For example, VSE procurement personnel were not required to conduct a safety related review prior to selecting DEI as a subcontractor. This incident could have been prevented had there been existing regulations that included best practices, guidance, required safety reviews for storing, transporting, and disposing of fireworks (Pang, 2011).
For example, requiring DEI to conduct a Process Hazard Analysis (PHA), or Management of Change (MOC) analysis when it modified its processes would have helped the company to identify, evaluate, and control the hazards involved in its disposal activities (Pang, 2011).