Motor Vehicle Safety:

Information on Accidental Fires in Manufacturing Air Bag Propellant

RCED-90-230: Published: Sep 28, 1990. Publicly Released: Nov 8, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed recent accidental fires at two U.S. and one Canadian facilities that made gas propellant for automobile air bags and at a Canadian facility that made sodium azide, focusing on: (1) general hazards associated with manufacturing propellant; (2) causes of fires and resulting injuries; (3) safety and health investigations conducted at the U.S. facilities; and (4) the impact of the fires on suppliers' ability to meet the automobile industry's air bag needs.

GAO found that: (1) air bag propellant formed an explosive which could detonate from shock or heat upon contact with acidic solutions or heavy metals; (2) the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration and chemists believed that air bag propellant could be produced safely; (3) between February 1988 and May 1990, the three principal air bag propellant manufacturers had a total of 11 propellant-related fires, with 4 serious injuries and no fatalities; (4) a state investigation of one firm's fires found human error as the most probable cause for both fires; (5) officials within another U.S. firm investigated its two fires, and found that one accident resulted from equipment failure and the other from explosive propellant; (6) the Canadian manufacturer investigated six fires, and found that human error caused four accidents, and improper equipment design, improper manufacturing procedure, and human error caused the other accidents; (7) after its seventh fire, Canadian agencies closed the facility until it could take corrective action; (8) state investigations found that the U.S. firms failed to adequately inform and train employees about the potential hazards of the chemicals used and did not comply with safety requirements; and (9) U.S. propellant manufacturers were able to meet the industry's demand for air bags, although one automobile manufacturer had to market 75,000 of its cars without air bags due to the closing of the Canadian plant.

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