The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

Mosta fireworks factory explosion ‘proof that safety regulations have worked’ – Godfrey Farrugia

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 3 July 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Mosta fireworks factory accident that occurred last month proved that in a moment of crisis, the health and safety regulations did work, former politician Dr Godfrey Farrugia said.

What happened at the factory, which was built according to the Planning Authority’s 2014 Fireworks Factory Policy, showed that fireworks are low grade explosives which can be easily sensitised, but all the necessary precautions must be undertaken to prevent all types of hazards, Farrugia said.

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On 4 June, an explosion which rocked the central part of Malta occurred at the 15 August fireworks factory. Three people were injured, with another eight escaping unscathed.

In light of the feast season, where licenced fireworks masters schedule aerial and ground displays in celebration of traditional Maltese and Gozitan festas, The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke with Farrugia about the art and science behind pyrotechnics and its spectacles.

Farrugia, a family doctor by profession, is a licence A pyro-technician with St Philip Fireworks Factory. He was asked about the story of fireworks, as well as how it evolved over the years.

“Maltese fireworks are considered among the best international exhibits. The art of fireworks is entrenched in our culture and when its discharge is synchronised with a musical score, creating a pyro-musical display, its audio-visual effects touch upon any person’s emotions and imparts a memorable experience,” Farrugia said.

Farrugia spoke about the different types of pyrotechnic articles which the Maltese have excelled in, when he referred to mechanised ground fireworks, terrace let-offs and aerial displays. Notable among the latter class of fireworks are daylight cylindrical multi-break cracker shells and colour petards. It is these multi-shot shells that have branded Malta’s name in international fireworks circles, he said.

The Maltese tradition of having fireworks displays as part of religious feasts’ celebrations was popularised during the time when the Knights of St John were in Malta, Farrugia said. He added that local bombardiers, as well as musketeers, used to shoot their cannons and their muskets respectively, bonfires were lit and black powder fireworks were let off from the ground without a propellant, to produce a serious of multiple bangs. 

Thanks to the craftsmanship of fireworks masters, local spectacles have evolved into unique displays that cover a week of festivities whose let offs coincide with the Church’s liturgical celebrations, he said.

“In sharp contrast to foreign pyro-technicians, local fireworks masters are volunteers who do not earn a living from pyrotechnics. They are distinguished by their altruism and passion. Therefore, the craft is locally described as a delizzju (hobby).  The driving force is the positive rivalry that exists between different feasts, and it is this that has kept this custom alive,” Farrugia said.

Farrugia was asked if Malta should consider opting for noiseless fireworks, which are much harder to make than the standard ones.

“There is a minority who do not appreciate the sound effect of fireworks, finding it tedious,” he said. “All pyrotechnic energy mixtures when ignited react to create an explosion by combustion and the energy released is its pyrotechnic effect. This takes the form of heat, light, motion and sound. Sound is part and parcel of the effect,” he said.

“Moreover, the sound of cracker shells signal and socially communicate the liturgical celebrations. These are let off to coincide with the exit of the statue from its niche, angelus, triduum, Te Deum, the procession and the Blessing,” Farrugia said.

“Their sound is a message. It tells people in neighbouring villages that the town is en fete. Their timed discharge is strictly regulated by law when it comes to quantity, type and for how long the let-offs last,” he said.

He stated that as a family doctor he encountered many occasions when the sound of the fireworks made the sick and home bound elderly recall past memories which highlighted joyful festive episodes in their life. “The sound is an integral part of the sensation for fireworks,” Farrugia said.

Asked about safety regulations, Farrugia said that the law is robust and compares well with other foreign legislations. Its principal objective is the health and safety of pyro-technicians while safeguarding the interests of the community and third-party rights, he said.

He said that it is not easy to obtain a local pyro-technician’s licence, despite the number of pyro-technicians being relatively high, and the license for every firework factory is annually renewed.

“All processes are regulated by the Police Authority and most factories have also upgraded their safety standards in this respect. Different chemical precursors, different unfinished fireworks preparations, finished pyrotechnic products and their debris are all stored differently and segregated from one another to ensure safety. This is a precaution that has been taken very seriously,” Farrugia said.

Farrugia was also asked about the recent explosion, which occurred in a fireworks factory on the limits of Mosta. No major injuries were reported and all 11 people on site at the time of the blast were accounted for. Asked if following the incident, safety regulations should be further increased, Farrugia said that thanks to the safety regulations in place, no one in that incident got hurt during the blast.

“These are sad affairs, but lessons seem to have been learned from past experiences. However, overconfidence kills. In this respect we must be extra careful,” he said.

“The accident has proved that the regulations being imposed have worked. We must remember that the best quality control in the manufacture, storage, transport and display of fireworks, aside from good practices, is safety. A pyro-technician nowadays is one who is educated both formatively and informatively,” Farrugia said.

The continued education programme in pyrotechnics organised by the police to renew a pyro-technician’s licence has assisted tremendously, but there is always room for improvement, he said.

Following the Commission’s report in 2010 that proposed a way forward, in 2014 further restrictions were imposed, among them that of potassium chlorate which was banned from being used in flash powder due to its incompatibility when mixed with metals.

Farrugia spoke about the claims of fireworks contributing to air, ground and water pollution, to which he said that there are no environmental or health neutral fireworks, but more eco-friendly precursors are being used. Moreover, our legislation prohibits the use of plastic casings.

Farrugia spoke about the second book he is writing and editing on the subject, entitled Fireworks: The vibrant celebrations of the Maltese Islands. It has 19 contributors and this work personalises Maltese fireworks and customs. The art, science and culture of fireworks are well depicted and complemented by Patrick Fenech’s choice of photography. The book, which will be published next year, will interest tourists, fireworks’ enthusiasts, those set to get a licence, as well as those who are curious about the workings of fireworks.

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