Government officials have maintained a worrying silence over the lack of an inspections unit that could have allowed the Explosives Committee to conduct spot-checks on fireworks factories.
Last Wednesday, the island was rocked by an explosion at the St Helen’s factory: one of the worst of its kind, killing five men – Censu Galea, 68, Paul Bonnici, 47, Carmel Farrugia, still in his 20s, Sonny Borg, 34, and Richard Cardona, 24.
The sole survivor, Joe Bonello, is recovering from burns after being rescued from the Ta’ Xwieki quarry in Gharghur.
The men were on site preparing fireworks for Birkirkara’s St Helen feast, which falls on August 19.
The Explosives Committee groups together experts from the army, police and Civil Protection Department, but has yet to set up an inspections unit that can conduct more regular checks on the factories.
A recommendation for the inspections unit to be set up has so far not been taken up by the government.
Last week, army minister Tony Abela refused to answer questions put to him by MaltaToday over the inspections unit.
Army commander Carmel Vassallo, who chairs the Explosives Committee, also declined to comment. Although the creation of the inspections unit goes beyond the tragic event of last week, Vassallo said “it would not be correct to make any comments or express any opinion at this moment in time while the inquiring magistrate is still investigating.”
The St Helen’s factory had already been the scene of another tragic death: in 1994, Ninu Borg, 71 from Birkirkara, died when part of the factory exploded.
The absence of an inspections unit was only revealed two years ago by MaltaToday, after an AFM spokesperson inadvertently sent two sets of replies – one of them a doctored set of answers, while the other a full set of replies which had been censored.
Replying to questions regarding health and safety standards in fireworks factories, Major Mario Spiteri pointed out how the Explosives Committee was unable to conduct regular inspections of fireworks factories.
But Spiteri’s answers to MaltaToday on the safety of fireworks factories had been doctored by his superiors, with his lengthy replies eventually cleansed of various revelations, most notably his claim that the Explosives Committee “is not in any way equipped to carry out inspections on a regular basis.”
It also emerged from the original replies that the committee “has long been requesting for an inspection unit”, a specialised unit of police, army, and civil protection personnel to carry out spot-checks on factories. This, too, had been omitted from the doctored version.
Most seriously, Major Spiteri’s denunciation of the dangers of this popular hobby were censored in the final reply, which did not carry his statement that fireworks production involved explosive materials “which are always unpredictable”, adding that “notwithstanding all the safety precautions taken, incidents are always bound to occur.”
The revelation came in the wake of the Zebbug fireworks factory explosion in 2005, which left two people dead.
According to the law, nobody can enter a fireworks factory to handle fireworks unless they carry a licence which must be produced to an authorised inspector on demand.
But there is nothing to enforce the law because of the inexistence of the inspections unit. The only checks are the annual inspections carried out by the Civil Protection Department.
But only the Explosives Committee is considered by the Occupational Health and Safety Authority as the “technically competent enforcing authority” on fireworks, which is why doubts still linger about the safety of Malta’s fireworks factories.