Fireworks industry officials say safety is always top priority. But it’s been more on their minds lately after the recent death of an employee in a July 3 fireworks warehouse explosion in Pleasant Hope.
Samantha Dean, 28, died July 10 from injuries she sustained in the blast a week prior at a facility owned and operated by Buffalo-based A.M. Pyrotechnics LLC. The incident remains under investigation by the Missouri fire marshal’s office, which was assisted in the aftermath by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
John Ham, public information officer with ATF’s Kansas City field division, said the fire marshal’s office is working on an origin and cause report expected to be complete in a few weeks.
“It’s a time-intensive process,” he said, adding explosion incidents are “a very rare occurrence.”
The last pyrotechnics-involved investigation he can recall Kansas City’s ATF office looking into was five or six years ago in southeast Kansas.
The ATF licenses and inspects those involved in the explosives industry, with inspections completed at least every three years, Ham said. That includes checking the facilities, storage and security of explosives and insuring the people handing them are properly licensed.
“It’s a very comprehensive inspection when we go to these locations,” he said, noting A.M. Pyrotechnics was licensed appropriately and in good standing at the time of the incident.
A.M. Pyrotechnics owner Aaron Mayfield said by email he was dealing with a separate family health emergency and was not available for comment.
While A.M. Pyrotechnics is involved in supplying fireworks products and producing choreographed displays, the company is part of a select few within the industry, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. She said there are less than a dozen manufacturers nationwide that produce aerial displays.
The U.S. imports 70 percent of display fireworks from China, along with about 99 percent of backyard consumer fireworks, she said.
Heckman said this month’s tragedy that befell A.M. Pyrotechnics, which is an APA member, is an extreme rarity.
“Thankfully, these types of events are very rare and few and far between,” she said.
Aisha Spencer, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries lists four fatal injuries in 2015, the most recent data available.
According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were eight nonoccupational fireworks-related deaths last year.
The CPSC tracks consumer-related fatalities, Heckman said, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration studies workplace fatalities. According to the CPSC report, there were 7.25 reports of fireworks-related deaths on average each year from 2002-2017.
Heckman said the fireworks industry is heavily regulated.
“The ATF is very, very rigorous in terms of doing inspections, and companies have to request permission whenever they modify anything at their facility to have them come back and approve it,” she said.
For example, she said the ATF has stringent requirements for how a facility is laid out, along with distances from highways, processing buildings and occupied buildings not on the property.
“People just don’t get into the fireworks business very lightly,” Heckman said. “They know this is a real commitment. The other thing that’s real important to note is these are all small, family businesses. They’re putting their family member on the line every single day.”
The fireworks industry is big business, even if mostly seasonal. According to the APA, consumer and display fireworks sales combined last year were $1.2 billion.
Mike Ingram has spent the last five decades in a family business dedicated to fireworks, which started when he ordered the products through the mail to sell when he was 15. He since has grown it into a multistate venture, with Springfield-based Fireworks Supermarket operating 20 retail locations in nine states, according to its website. Ingram serves as president and CEO of Ingram Enterprises, the retailer’s parent company, with his son Michael working by his side.
The two also are involved in leadership roles within the industry, as Ingram serves as president of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, and his son is on the APA Board of Directors.
“We’re a real safety-conscious company, which is really important,” Mike Ingram said. “If you’re in the fireworks business to any significant degree, one of the most important things – other than making a living – is that the products you sell to the public are safe for use by the public.”
Ingram said the AFSL is an independent third-party testing agency, with products tested in China prior to shipment to the U.S. He said all products for his company’s stores are tested by AFSL but noted his factories also conduct a separate test before the agency receives the fireworks.
“So we get a double check,” he said.
Retail vendors such as Fireworks Supermarket are regulated by the CPSC, U.S. Department of Transportation, ATF, state fire marshal’s office and locally by the authority with jurisdiction, Ingram said. Fireworks vendors that operate temporarily in tents and similar structures each summer are also subject to regulations, Ingram said. County authorities inspect those vendors before they can open for the Independence Day season, and they’re typically visited by the state fire marshal’s office once open for business.
“You can pretty well be assured that the product we get in the United States is safe before we get it,” Ingram said. “We take it one step further, and we sample test the great majority of our product again when we get it here, just to be doubly sure that it’s safe.”
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