The Michigan fireworks factory where an explosion
Monday killed five people was guilty of "serious and
willful safety violations" according to state officials
who investigated an earlier blast at the plant that left
seven workers dead. A forthcoming Michigan Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) report on the
December 11, 1998 explosion cited Independence Professional
Fireworks Co. for violations that posed a substantial probability
of death or serious physical harm to workers.
However, neither MIOSHA nor the federal Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), which regulates fireworks manufacturers,
ordered the factory closed. Independence is among the country's
largest makers of display fireworks shells.
Another explosion Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. ripped through
the plant near Osseo, Michigan, a small town in rural Hillsdale
County, some 100 miles southwest of Detroit. Flames shot
through a small shack where workers were assembling fireworks,
only 100 yards from a structure that was destroyed in a
massive explosion last December. Pittsford Fire Chief Craig
Winner said it appeared that a firework had detonated on
The bodies of two men and two women were found inside the
building. Company owner Robert Slayton was found alive outside,
but died in the hospital later from critical burns. Victims
were burned so badly that inspectors were using dental records
to establish their identification. According to family,
coworkers and friends, those who were killed were Leah Dunning,
34, a mother of three; Rick Wiggins, 30; Scott Burton; and
the company owner and his wife Patricia Slayton.
The blast shocked and angered the community of 1,387 people,
who were still collecting donations for a monument to honor
the seven workers killed on December 11, 1998. Six women
and one man were killed and another 13 were injured. The
two explosions in little more than three months have killed
half of the company's work force.
The lack of opportunities in the farming community apparently
induced some of the workers to return despite the first
explosion. Tammy Sykes said her neighbor Leah Dunning had
been concerned about going back. "She wasn't crazy
about going to back to work after the explosion in December.
But it was a good paying job for around here," Sykes
Walter Adams, a former employee, told the Detroit Free
Press about the hazardous nitrates, sulfurs, charcoal and
black powder which the workers handled each day. Adams said,
"We would roll the mixtures together, dry them and
then wrap them." Inside the building "there were
raw powders and such. They don't explode that much, but
they burn real hot and real fast. I'd have to say that this
happened because the stuff is so volatile. Even static electricity
can set it off," Adams said. "We had some solutions
that we had to mix by hand, using our fingers and going
very slowly since even the friction could cause it to ignite."
Local residents who had sought to keep the factory closed
after the first blast were outraged when the company resumed
operations about a week ago. "We were so angry when
we heard them testing fireworks. We didn't think they'd
let them reopen. We didn't want them to," Paula Watters,
who lives a quarter mile from the fireworks site, told the
Toledo Blade. Ms. Watters' cousin, Joyce Carr, died in last
December's blast. "Now we're reliving it all over again.
Every time a car backfires we go crazy," she said.
Ms. Watters said she called 911 and the BATF to complain
and urged her neighbors to do the same. But local officials
said they were powerless because federal firearms and explosive
regulations governed the plant's operations. The BATF, the
state police fire marshal's office and the Hillsdale County
sheriff's office, which for the most part have not finished
their investigation of December's explosion, claimed they
were not aware that the company was operating.
Mark Hady, BATF resident agent in charge, said the factory's
license had not been revoked after the December explosion
but refused to explain why. Detective Sgt. Ken Hersha of
the State Police fire marshal division said the company
kept its license because investigators could find nothing
that contributed to the December blast's origin.
Kalmin Smith, the deputy director of the state's Consumer
and Industry Services Department, a MIOSHA agency, said
the state can only shut a company down if it finds clear
and convincing evidence of an imminent threat of danger
or death to employees. Even if MIOSHA had found several
safety violations, he said, these may not have been the
cause of either one of the explosions. "They don't
have to report to us what they're doing," he added.
"I assume they were operating normally until today."
Even before the December 1998 blast the company had a long
record of accidents and safety violations. Disaster was
narrowly averted in August 1983 when employees fled a building
before an explosion at the plant, then located in Exeter
Township in Monroe County. Township officials and residents
complained to the BATF, and the company, then owned by William
Richardson, moved to Hillsdale County the next year. Richardson,
now listed as a consultant to the company, then sold Independence
to Richard Slayton.
Safety inspectors issued 10 violation notices to the company
in 1985 and 1986. In November 1991 another 19 citations
were issued, including 9 for serious violations, but the
company was only fined $1,200. Some of the violations included
an open flame in a furnace in a building with fireworks,
employees wearing clothing that could allow sparks to ignite
and the lack of eye protection for workers.
According to inspection records, the company's owners fought
many of the violations, appealing some for many years before
complying. In September 1994 an inspector said Richardson
angrily confronted her over a violation. In a report she
said, "He became very agitated and said that ATF was
the most despised agency in the federal government because
of Waco and petty violations such as the one issued to Independence."
Safety inspectors have not been inside the plant since
1994 despite its unsafe record. The December 1998 explosion
was the worst fatal accident in Michigan history. The second
worst was the February 1 explosion at the Ford Rouge complex
in Dearborn, which claimed the lives of six workers.
Over the last two decades successive administrations in
state government, both Democratic and Republican, have cut
funding for safety inspections. Between 1980 and 1998 the
number of safety inspections carried out by the Michigan
Occupational and Safety Administration fell by 73 percent,
from 21,046 to 5,778. MIOSHA has only 42 inspectors to cover
216,000 workplaces in the state. Last year 1,273 industrial
locations out of 16,800 were inspected.