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July 8, 2015

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Coloured powder: a potentially explosive issue?

How can a seemingly harmless activity like getting covered in coloured powder at a festival turn into a major disaster with hundreds of people seriously injured?

The use of coloured powder thrown or projected at event participants is a growing trend, for example, the colour runs which feature in event calendars in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton. Participants turn up in white clothing and run for a few kilometres while being pelted with coloured flour raising money for charity in the process.

The idea stems from the Hindu Holi festival, a spring festival, also known as the festival of colours or the festival of love. It is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular with non-Hindus in many parts of South Asia, as well as becoming a popular tourist attraction. The festival has, in recent times, spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, fun and colours.

In the spirit of such a well-meaning and essentially innocent activity it seems churlish for health and safety advisors to point out that there are potential risks to this colourful exuberance. The base ingredient is cornflower with a pigment colour dye. However, a lot of brands used at organised events don’t carry COSHH data sheets as promoters have been importing unregulated products from India with the risk that the dyes carry a pigment that can stain the lungs on a permanent basis. Flour itself is sensitising and can cause a severe allergic reaction. More seriously, however, any powder or dust in a cloud form is potentially explosive.

At a recent music festival in Taiwan the crowd was sprayed with coloured powder, which then ignited. This was a classic case of failing to do a proper risk assessment. Fire requires fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition but the mix of fuel and oxygen has to be right. The use of such powders in religious festivals is a theoretical risk but does not necessarily create an explosive mix because of the spread of activity and the lack of ignition sources.

When you bring the activity into a confined area and blast the powder in a concentrate near a source of heat like hot stage light. However, the risk is not just theoretical. In this case, the result was a fireball, which tore through the crowd causing 500 casualties, 200 of whom suffered serious burns to their skin and lungs. The number and severity of injuries was partly down to the fact that this event was in a water park and many participants were scantily clad, some only in swimwear, which increased their exposure.

Every event creates a unique context in terms of its location, type of activity and visitor profile. Event organisers must assess the risk of what may appear to be a low risk activity in its original form, in the context of the planned event. In this case creating an explosive mix of powder close to multiple sources of ignition in a confined area closely packed with scantily clad festival-goers was a foreseeable disaster in the making. It is a miracle that there were no fatalities, notwithstanding, for many victims the physical and mental scars will be life changing.



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Christopher W Ide
Christopher W Ide
8 years ago

A very thought-provoking article, demonstrating the importance of adequate and relevant risk assessments.
I remember a Factory Inspector showing a picture of a building which had been demolished by an explosion, killing three workers. He would ask his audience to decide whether the explosive was TNT, dynamite or gun-cotton. All these answers were wrong – the correct one was 75 lbs of custard powder (maize starch, IIRC) which had been transferred from a bulk tanker to a storage silo, but the finely divided powder had been ignited by a sparking motor.