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Stress on fireworks safety

In a move presented by the Culture Minister Owen Bonnici as highlighting the important work carried out by enthusiasts “in strengthening national traditions and promoting Malta’s cultural heritage”, the Arts Council is giving fireworks factories €170,000 from the newly-created Pyrotechnics Fund to improve safety and infrastructure.

The Pyrotechnics Fund will be open to all fireworks factories having a valid licence and registered as voluntary organisations. Each one will be eligible for a maximum grant of €5,000, which may be used primarily for restoration, investment in infrastructure or equipment and safety training.

At least 60 per cent of the money must be used for infrastructure, while the balance could cover current running expenses, such as police and fire safety duties for pyrotechnic displays, firing systems and manufacturing materials. A board of evaluators will decide which proposals will be eligible for the grant.

Fireworks safety in Malta has been – and remains – an issue of paramount importance. Fireworks are made by amateur, not professional, pyrotechnics enthusiasts. While they produce fireworks displays that are literally world class, the fact is they are made by enthusiastic, though dedicated, amateurs. Moreover, fireworks factories, which are effectively explosives dumps, dot the countryside in an increasingly urbanised Malta and Gozo, bringing their danger ever closer to populated communities.

Fireworks safety issues returned to the news recently after the Appeals Court revoked the permit of a factory in Żebbiegħ on the basis that it was located closer than the stipulated 183 metres from the nearest road. The case, dating back some 30 years, had been instituted by farmers fearful for their safety.

The explosions that rocked the fireworks factory in Għarb about six years ago, which left four men dead and a scene of utter destruction, are etched in the memory. By many standards, the Għarb factory was in a relatively open piece of countryside. But although Għarb may be relatively under-populated, the area where the incident occurred is very popular with hikers and families.

What made that tragedy so much worse, however, is that almost exactly two years earlier, another factory at Għarb, just 500 metres away, had also blown up, wiping out a complete family.

In the wake of these tragic events, residents at Għarb are contesting a Planning Authority decision to pave the way for a new fireworks factory there, which the local council insists rides roughshod over locals’ wishes and puts lives at risk.

A study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that, statistically, between 1950 and 1977, the incidence of fireworks factory accidents there was 0.0001 per year. If the same rate were applied to Malta, taking due account of differences in size, the Maltese islands would experience one accident every 250 years. Instead, however, between 1980 and 2010 (the latest figures available to the study), fireworks led to an average of 2.3 accidents every year – a tragic roll-call underlining the vital importance of improving safety standards in Maltese fireworks factories.

It is therefore encouraging to note that the main thrust of the new Pyrotechnics Fund is to be devoted to infrastructure to make fireworks factories safer, the installation of equipment to improve safety during the letting off of fireworks and – most importantly – greater investment in the training and discipline of the all-fallible human resources.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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