Every year, millions of pounds of explosives are produced in the U.S. These explosives are produced for military purposes; however, a large portion of these explosives is produced for industrial use in mining, civil and petroleum engineering and in agriculture. Despite the usefulness of explosives, they can be dangerous when mishandled or misused. Occasionally, the media reports of an explosion that killed or injured people; these may be the people working with the explosives or other people that were near the scene of an explosion. Therefore, safety is a major concern in the handling, transportation and use of explosives. This paper examines the importance of safety measures around based on the Mustang, Nevada 1998 explosions.
Overview of the 1998 Kean Canyon Plan Explosion
When the safety handling of explosives is mentioned, one incident that rings in the minds of many citizens is the Mustang, Nevada 1998 explosions, which left four people dead and injured six others (CSB, 1998). These explosions took place at the SierraKeanCanyon facility and damaged the facility. The KeanCanyon plant produced small explosive devices used in the mining industry. The explosions involved various explosive materials such as PETN, Comp-B, TNT, and other explosives that had been bought through the Department of Defense demilitarization program. The latter includes A-3 and LX-14, which substituted Comp-B (CSB, 1998). Following the incident, an investigation was conducted by the CSHIB to establish the source of the explosions and make recommendations as to how to avoid such incidents in the future.
The CSB found out that there were a number of defects in the safe handling of explosives at the facility. The CSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was a chain of events that started the day before the accident. An employee had left 50 to 100 pounds of explosive material, PETN, in one of the bowls the day before the accident. This material is usually transported wet due to its instability in dry form (CSB, 1998). The PETN in the mixing bowl dried and solidified overnight. It is believed that an employee turned on the mixing motor with solidified material and the contact of the blades with the dried explosive triggered the initial explosion. The shock wave from the first blast detonated several thousand pounds of explosive in a nearby storage facility (CSB, 1998).
The Nature of Explosives
The Sierra plant explosions explosion; thus served as a warning to other facilities handing explosives to make safety a major concern. In particular, workers in facilities handling explosives should be well trained to ensure their safety and that of others. Explosives are a tool designed to function by rapidly producing a large quantity of energy in the form of shock compression waves that are transmitted to the surrounding rock in the case of mining (Zukas & Walters, 2002). Within a certain distance of the charge, this tremendous transference of energy succeeds in pulverizing the rock. As the compression waves progress through the rock formation and are reflected back into the rock, additional fragmentation and fracturing of the formation occurs. Fissures created by the shock wave fill almost instantaneously by expanding gases that further move the broken pieces of rock. As would be expected, the amplitude and energy of the shock compression waves decrease with distance from the borehole, producing a correspondingly lesser degree of impact on the surrounding material (Zukas & Walters, 2002).
High explosives have a number of characteristics. First, they are chemical compounds or mixtures that are initiated by heat, shock, friction, or a combination of the above. When initiated by a detonator or booster, high explosives decompose rapidly in a detonation. The detonation produces a fast release of heat, as well as large quantities of gases of high-pressure, which, in turn, rapidly expand with enough force to outdo the confining forces such as a surrounding rock formation (Zukas & Walters, 2002). High explosives are also susceptible to deflagration. If confined, the resulting pressure can cause the chemical reaction to move from deflagration to detonation, and the process can even take place without oxygen. This implies that those involved in the process of handling and using explosive materials must be knowledgeable about the characteristics of the particular products being used and the proper procedures for handling and use. Every situation that requires the handling and use of explosives must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Operators should consider the unique physical, geological, and meteorological conditions characterizing the area where explosive materials are to be used (Zukas & Walters, 2002).
Importance of Safety around Explosives: Learning from the Mistakes of Mustang Explosion
The importance of safety awareness in the handling and use of explosive materials cannot be overstated. A well-trained and experienced blaster appreciates the awesome power of explosive materials and knows that each blast must be carefully and thoughtfully planned using proper materials and equipment. In the hands of an inadequately trained or inexperienced individual, this powerful tool has the potential for disastrous misuse (Friend & Kohn, 2010). The actual destructive capacity of modern-day explosives may not be fully appreciated by those unfamiliar with explosives, or by those who witness only the controlled energy of a well planned executed blast. The relative safety and stability of contemporary explosive products and the ability of the experienced blaster to effectively harness, and direct their tremendous power must never be permitted to engender complacency when working with or around explosives. An acute awareness of the potential consequences of mishandling explosive products should drive the actions of all those working with the materials (Friend & Kohn, 2010). Accidents involving explosive materials are rare; however, when they come about, they are usually fatal and disastrous. They are caused by numerous factors. In order to examine the factors that cause accidents to occur when handling and using explosives, this paper will base its arguments on the Mustang 1998 explosion incident, but not limited to the particular events only.
Factors that can Cause Accidents around Explosives
One of the factors that cause accidents to occur in the handling and use of explosives is unsafe work practices. This is one of the factors that the workers who were interviewed in the Mustang incident reported (Friend & Kohn, 2010). For instance, workers unplugged draw-off lines using metal tools. This is an unsafe work practice that has caused accidents in other explosive facilities. Metal objects are extremely avoided when handling and using explosives because they may trigger a detonation due to sparking (CSB, 1998). Although the investigation found out that the use of the metal rod was not the cause of the explosion of the Mustang 1998 incident, such practices should be abolished because they endanger the life of the worker and that of others. Another unhealthy practice that may have triggered the Mustang 1998 explosion is the use of metal hammers in breaking down rejected boosters. This practice was common among outside workers and created a serious potential for an impact or ignition by impingement (CSB, 1998). The use of the metal hammer made the situation worse because it could easily cause a detonation through sparking. Apart from the use of materials that may easily cause a detonation, explosions may occur when handling and suing explosives due to use of different explosive materials. For instance, in the Mustang case, operators were not aware of the hazards involved in using LX-14 as a substitute for Comp-B (CSB, 1998).
The material had been used earlier and failed to melt for more than three hours. Such products had been purchased from the Department of Defense and workers were no aware of their danger. Therefore, the workers went on to use unknown substances and added them to mixing pots. This is a potentially dangerous venture. Owners of explosive faculties need to review all substances used in the creation of explosives (CSB, 1998). In addition, operators should also understand the substances they are using in order to avoid committing a costly mistake out of ignorance or negligence. People working with explosives should be quick to learn from their mistakes and those of others. For instance, in the Mustang incident, mixing different substances believed to be substitutes for Comp B had caused an operation problem earlier, but it seemed that the operators had not learned from this incident because they went on using the LX-14 substance although its physical characteristics varied (CSB, 1998).
Another cause of accidents in facilities handling explosives is in the construction and spacing of buildings. Buildings in which operations on explosives take place or are stored should be well constructed and spaced in order to avoid the spreading of explosion in case a detonation occurs in one building (Friend & Kohn, 2010). However, this was not the case in Sierra 1998 incident because the buildings were not located at safe distances from each other so as to deter the transfer of an explosion from one building to the other. For instance, Booster Room 1 and Booster Room 2 were located 80 feet, while the recommended spacing is 490 feet (CSB, 1998). Apart from spacing, the material used for constructing building where explosives are handled should be strong. Although concrete is a good building material, there are more stable ones such as metal or wood that should be preferred in order to ensure stability of the building in case of an explosion (DOE, 2006).
Another factor that may lead to accidents when using explosives is failure to perform a process hazard analysis. All manufacturers of explosives are required by law to perform a process hazard analysis of their operations in order to determine the hazards associated with the process (DOE, 2006). The PHA should be conducted as a team effort with the presence of an engineer and an operator, as well as employee representatives. The PHA should be documented, updated, and revalidated at least in every five years. Despite the need for workers to participate in the formulation of the PHA of an explosive facility, no worker from the KeanCanyon plant took part in conducting the PHA of that facility. In addition, the PHA was only conducted for Booster 1 and was not conducted in Booster 2 since the management believed that they did not need to repeat the process given that the two rooms have similar operations (CSB, 1998). However, this is a mistake because PHA should be conducted in all rooms even if similar processes take place.
As it is evident from the Sierra facility explosion, failure to conduct a PHA or to enlist employees in the process can be a costly mistake in the manufacture of explosives (OSHA, 2012). This is because they were not aware of any PHA’s that existed for the facility; thus, they were not aware of the hazards discovered from the study. For instance, they were not aware that static electricity could trigger a detonation, although the PHA stated so. In addition, workers were also not aware of the danger of using metal rods in drawing off clogged off, despite the fact that the management knew of the hazardous effects of such practices. Although the PHA for one of the rooms was conducted, it did not put into consideration the need for proper siting, a factor that contributed to the destruction of unrelated chemical facilities and the death of a worker in the flux room during the explosion (CSB, 1998).
The CSB faulted the PHA conducted by the management because it underestimated the effects of breaches in the system and as such, few controls were implemented to prevent an accident like the one that occurred. This incident, therefore, highlights the need for those handling and using explosives to conduct a PHA in order to avoid some of the costly mistakes, which can be evaded if a thorough PHA is conducted with the participation of all workers, and documented and made available to all employees (OSHA, 2012). When handling and using explosives, there is a need for writing procedures in order to guide the workers in conducting melting and pouring operations. These procedures should be sued to train operators, who in turn, should offer on-job training to other workers (OSHA, 2012). However, in the KeanCanyon, there were no written procedures, and operators were not trained using them. As a result, procedures for the melt-pour operations were based on the operators. The operators were production-oriented given that they were paid based on a piece of work they had done. There was no uniform written procedure for use by the operators, and this lack of an operating procedure may have been a key contributor to the detonation in booster room 2.
Handling explosives is a risky operation, and as such, operators should be provided with a written procedure that offers guidelines on the various operations (DOE, 2006). It should not be left to the operator to decide on how to proceed with a particular operation; this may jeopardize the operation and cause unnecessary damage as it happened in the Sierra incident. When handling explosives, training is very important because it ensures that the operator is equipped with the necessary skills needed for the various risky operations (DOE, 2006). The training should be done in a language that the worker understands well and be conducted in a formal manner with standards and performance criteria to show the trainee’s progress. Although on-job training may be an appropriate style for some careers, it is a wrong approach to use it when dealing with hazardous products such as explosives. This is because handling explosives does not leave any room for mistakes because a single error can lead to detonations, which may be catastrophic (OSHA, 2012).
Surprisingly, workers in the Sierra plant relied mainly on on-job training, which was done by trainers who were also expected to perform in other areas. This implied that the training was to be done quickly, and as such, the trainee may have missed basic skills in the handling of the lethal explosives (CSB, 1998). In addition, the training was also conducted without written procedures or standards with the trainer having the sole discretion of the performance. This may have necessitated cases where important information was left out. In addition, training was done in English, despite the fact that many workers were Spanish, a situation that may have posed language barrier. Although there was an interpreter who spoke both English and Spanish, chances are that some instructions were not well understood or the written guidelines not understood (CSB, 1998).
In order to ensure that workers protect themselves from hazardous effects of the process involved in operating with explosives, they need to have process safety information. This information is important as it helps the worker to know what to do in case of an unsafe scenario (Bahr & StallCup, 2003). It is; thus, important for such information to be availed to the worker and be documented in the language the worker can understand well. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the Sierra explosive plant because workers did not use and were unaware that there existed any written safety programs. Most of process safety information had been communicated by word of mouth since it was not available in Spanish, which is the language that many workers understood (CSB, 1998).
In addition to having process information, workers should also take part in process safety management. This is because workers interact with the substances in the manufacturing of explosives and as such, if any accidents occur, they are the ones likely to be affected more by such incidents (OSHA, 2012). Therefore, they should participate in the development of safety programs and policies. It is unfortunate that the workers in the Sierra plant were not involved in the program for developing safety policies. The employees did not even know whether such a program existed because they believed that their participation was limited to cases of fire prevention and clothing control (CSB, 1998). The failure to enlist employees in process safety management may have been a key cause of the explosion.
Safety Measures when Handling, Using, Storing and Transporting Explosives
After examining several factors that lead to explosions in explosive facilities, this paper will now focus on some safety measures that should be observed around explosives. Although some of the safety measures around explosives entail common sense, operators should have thorough knowledge of explosives in order to handle, use, and transport them safely (Bahr & StallCup, 2003). One of the safety measures for storing explosives is that they should be stored in magazines whose construction has been approved and licensed according to local, state and federal guidelines (Friend & Kohn, 2010). These magazines should be closed always, except in cases when explosive materials are being delivered into it or removed to be delivered to the blasting site. Further, the interior and the outside of the magazine should be kept clean and be constructed and lined so that no metallic materials are exposed. Another safety measure is that explosives should not be stored in the same store with detonator products (Friend & Kohn, 2010).
When working with and handling explosives, it is important to have accurate records of the explosive materials and also use stock properly starting with the oldest one. Flammable substances, smoking, and naked flames, and matches are strictly forbidden inside or in a distance of 20 meters from the storage magazines (OSHA, 2012). The vehicles transporting explosives should be kept in good mechanical condition. The vehicle should have a closed body, and be approved for use in such purposes. The body of such vehicles should be lined with wood or any other non-sparking material (Gibson, 2000). In addition, the vehicle should have at least two fire extinguishers. Explosives should not be transported in a trailer or the same vehicle with detonators, while electric detonators should be transported in their original containers (OSHA, 2012).
The importance of employee and personnel training cannot be overstated in the safe handling and use of explosives. Management, blasters, and site operators should familiarize themselves with the safety rules and practices of a certain operation. Workers ought to be trained to perform regular tasks and have the required knowledge to make fast and informed decisions in the event of an emergency (OSHA, 2012). In order to ensure imparting of proper training, there is a necessity for an official training program identifying the training requirements, both theoretical and practical courses, as well as crucial safety procedures in the course. Further, the training program should cater for the needs of first aid, general safety induction, or any other field that supports operation safety (Friend & Kohn, 2010). There is a need for workers and line managers to undergo training and certification programs in explosives in order to have a basic knowledge of explosive safety principles, as well as job-specific knowledge. Another safety measure is that reclaimed explosives or the ones obtained from government agencies such as the Department of Defense should be screened to ascertain that they are free from any impurities that may cause contamination and spark off explosions (Friend & Kohn, 2010).
In conclusion, the Sierra plant explosions 1998 brought to attention different defects in the way explosives are handled and used. The accident highlighted the need for staff to be trained on the system in order to be able to handle the chemicals with care. It also raised concern for the need for process hazard analysis in order to examine the hazards that may be associated with the system, and as such, prepare workers for any eventualities that may arise. In addition, the accident highlighted for plants handling explosives to have written procedures that can guide workers on how to operate instead of leaving the running of the system at the sole discretion of the operators. Further, the Sierra plant explosion raised a major concern for the need for effective cooperation and information exchange among the management and workers. This is because the management of the plant was aware of some of the dangerous mistakes that the workers were committing, but did not care to inform them. Other explosive plants should learn from the experience of other facilities and make the safety of their operations a major concern. Workers handling explosives should not be complacent with their experience in operating such dangerous chemicals, or even be blinded by their ability to confine the explosives and ensure safe detonation. Instead, they should be more vigilant and cautious because, much as explosives can be useful when handled and used appropriately, they can also be catastrophic if mishandled or misused.