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Explosives Safety Briefings

Safety briefings about handling explosives should focus on how explosives react to heat, shock, and friction.

A Soldier takes on the risks of his chosen profession. A few risks are influenced by outside forces, such as enemy combatants and Mother Nature. But many risks directly correlate with how we use the tools of our trade. A risk that is a nightmare for every leader in the Army is explosives. All Soldiers use some form of explosives, from small arms to bulk demolition materials, throughout their careers.

As an organization focusing heavily on force protection, the Army uses many classes (both the hands-on and the dreaded Microsoft PowerPoint versions) to convey the safety precautions necessary for a mission to be successful for all involved. Likewise, to mitigate the risk of an explosive hazard, the Army provides self-taught classes on line, safety bulletins, and PowerPoint slides.

Some PowerPoint presentations on this topic have over 220 slides. No matter how important the topic is, you will lose your audience and not achieve the desired training effect with that number of slides. Explosives safety briefs can be narrowed down to three topics: heat, shock, and friction. What explosives are and how explosives react to those three forces are the critical components of a proper explosives safety briefing.

Explosives Safety Basics
An explosive is a substance or mixture of substances that may be made to undergo a rapid chemical change, without an outside supply of oxygen, with the liberation of large quantities of energy generally accompanied by the evolution of hot gases. Explosives are broken into two categories, low explosives and high explosives. Low explosives burn or deflagrate instead of detonating. Examples of low explosives are black powder and propellants. High explosives are substances that detonate. Composition C–4 and TNT are examples of high explosives.

Spartan Field Kitchen
Armaments system repair crews from D Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, inspect and load 30-millimeter ammunition onto an AH–64D Apache Longbow helicopter. (Photo by MAJ Enrique Vasquez)

We know that for an explosive device to function, it must be introduced to heat, shock, or friction. Heat is external or added energy that causes a rise in temperature. Shock is a sudden and violent blow or impact. And friction is a force that appears whenever two things rub against each other.

These forces can act independently or in any combination to start the reaction that causes an explosion. For an example of how this works, consider the 5.56-millimeter round in the M4 carbine. The round comprises a primer and gunpowder enclosed in a brass casing. When the trigger is pulled, the rifle's firing pin strikes the primer, igniting the gunpowder and forcing the bullet out of the rifle. This is an example of shock in action.

As an example of a high explosive, the firing train of a block of Composition C–4 happens this way: An M81 fuse igniter sends the initiating shock down a tube, which sparks the primary high explosives in a blasting cap, which generates the needed heat and shock, which causes the C–4 to explode.

Examples of Explosives Mishandling
Understanding the nature of explosives leads to a better understanding of safety in the workplace. A case in point is the handling of 25-millimeter rounds. A series of accidents with these rounds that occurred from 2003 to 2007 had a common theme: improper handling of explosives.

In 2003, an unknown number of 25-millimeter training rounds blew up in the compartment of an M2 Bradley fighting vehicle. The rounds had already been removed from their shipping containers and were susceptible to the forces of heat, shock, and friction. Added shocks caused by mishandling and rough terrain led to the functioning of the rounds, causing several injuries to the Soldiers in the Bradley.

Spartan Field Kitchen
An ammunition specialist of the 60th Ordnance Company, 260th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 15th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), operates a forklift of ammunition while another ammunition specialist guides the forklift to a pallet during ammunition loading operations. All materials-handling equipment requires a ground guide, especially when handling ammunition. (Photo by SSG Daniel Meeker)

In August 2007 in Iraq, mishandled 25-millimeter rounds caused a fatal injury to a Soldier. The munitions were being offloaded from one vehicle to another when the primer of one of the rounds was struck during movement. The resulting detonation of the round sent fragments into a Soldier's chest, fatally injuring him.

A memorandum was issued in May 2010 to deter Soldiers from using ammunition as a hammer. A Soldier, obviously not thinking, had grabbed a .50-caliber cartridge and started to pound on the locking pin of his gun mount in order to secure it. The primer on the round, being introduced to shock, set off the explosive firing train and fragmented in the Soldier's hand.

In these incidents, small-arms munitions in three different parts of the world caused serious injuries and death to Soldiers. The incidents were caused by shock, the unneeded force created by mishandling munitions.

There have also been reports of heat causing explosives to ignite. During Operation Iraqi Freedom 09–10, a memorandum was published about grenade handling and placement. The memorandum reported that multiple smoke grenades were placed near a vehicle's engine control module device and were introduced to an extra heat source. The added heat was a contributing factor to the functioning of the grenades inside the vehicle. No Soldiers were injured in this incident. This incident was a toll-free lesson about the heat factor in the functioning of munitions.

Explosives are dangerous, but sometimes we go too far while trying to convey the safety message to Soldiers. Building the safety briefing around the key factors of heat, shock, and friction, which cause explosive reactions, will ensure a solid explosives safety program. Leading by example and supervising to ensure that no unneeded heat, shock, or friction is applied to munitions will lead to a successful mission and bring Soldiers home alive and well.

Captain Chad R. Huggins is the commander of the 162d Ordnance Company (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) at Fort Riley, Kansas. He holds a bachelor's degree in international studies from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is a graduate of the Transportation Officer Basic Course, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Chemical Energetic Course, and Unit Movement Officer Course.

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