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Hidden Hazards

Features - Safety Focus

Unexploded air bags from scrapped vehicles continue to pose serious safety concerns and require a zero-tolerance policy.

Joe Bateman July 8, 2013

I was standing beside the yard manager at the truck scale as a load of crushed cars came in. A huge yellow machine arched above the load of crushed cars on steel I-beam legs. On its side was stenciled: Hypersort 3000. As the load passed under, long flexible titanium tentacles snaked out of the bottom of the machine and bored into each one of the crushed cars. As these retracted, each small claw at the end of every arm held an undeployed airbag. A lid opened on the top of the Hypersort just as these airbag canisters were dropped into a bin. Muffled explosions could be heard from inside the machine as its electro-firing mechanisms discharged every air bag canister inside its manganese hull. When the discharging procedure was complete, the canisters were conveyed into one of the Hypersort’s collection bins for later processing.

Next, the tentacles came out and pierced the crushed cars. When they reappeared, mercury switches from every hood, trunk, GPS and ABS brake assembly were held securely in their claws. Another separate lid opened on the Hypersort and the switches were deposited inside without damage to the mercury pellets contained inside.

Once again the arms extended and a siphon tube extended from the center of each claw. As the claws entered the vehicles, these tubes injected themselves into each fuel tank, oil pan, radiator, brake cylinder, windshield washer reservoir and transmission unit. As they did, they completely removed the respective fluids. I saw the various fluids being pumped back into dedicated holding tanks on the Hypersort 3000. After the drain lines emptied, I heard a hissing sound. The yard manager answered my puzzled expression by explaining that each storage unit on the crushed vehicles was being purged by nitrogen, removing all potentially explosive vapors.

After that, each vehicle was scanned by another, larger tentacle equipped with what looked like a camera lens on the end of it. I was told the Hypersort was now scanning for propane tanks hidden under back seats, concrete blocks and other unshreddables. The same lens scanned for radiation, eliminating the need for a separate detection unit. Dirt percentage was calculated and deducted from the net weight. The same camera, integrated with Scrap Theft Alert, checked for stolen material.

The scalemaster, of course, was viewing this entire process on his monitor inside the scale house. When the Hypersort finished the process, which seemed to happen in just seconds, a message was sent to the GPS unit onboard the peddler’s vehicle directing him to the unloading area. After his return trip across the scale empty, payment was electronically credited to the customer’s account.

I turned toward the yard manager and asked him how much the Hypersort 3000 cost. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Honey, it’s time to get up.”

I asked, “What are you talking about?”

“It’s time to get up.”

I was being shaken.

“Honey, it’s time to get up,” my wife said as she shook me.

Fantasy? Yes. But what’s the harm in dreaming. If we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to create a machine that would do all these things in a recycling operation.


Ongoing Concerns
As I’ve researched material for this article I’ve talked to people I consider experts in this area from some of the largest scrap processors in the United States.

As one of the safety outreach managers with ISRI, I’ve walked nearly 300 scrap yards over the last five years. I’ve talked with countless people who deal with this issue all too regularly.

I got a call recently from a man who bought a truckload of air bag canisters, having been assured by the seller that every canister was discharged. Imagine his shock in finding many of the canisters were, in fact, not discharged. He turned to me for help. I became just as frustrated as he was in looking for an answer to this question.

I talked with another man a few weeks ago from a large scrap company to whom I was referred as an expert in this field. I was told he had thoroughly researched this issue and would have definitive answers. When I met him, I asked what he did with undischarged air bag canisters, expecting at long last the answer to my quest. His answer: “I’ve got 300,000 pounds of them on site.” Here, too, the expert was stumped.

I asked another well-respected manager. His suggestion: “Sprinkle them in with other loads a little at a time.” It reminded me of what we do with rebar.

What’s the big deal about airbags? Here’s one example:

A retired General Motors engineer had been in the backyard for a family gathering when they decided to set off an airbag canister for fun. The 8-inch-long, 2-inch-diameter explosive device “got away from them,” and struck the man above his eyebrows. The impact left the man’s forehead intact, but removed the cap of his skull and threw him back several feet. The canister continued another 6 feet, crashing through a window in the house. The dead man’s brother told him that he and co-workers used to blow up airbag canisters at work for fun. He said the victim told him he’d “taken some things from the trash,” when he retired and had made a device for setting off airbag canisters.


Zero Tolerance
Incidents of airbags exploding in aluminum smelters have resulted in zero-tolerance policies on the part of many aluminum processors. Scrap loads rejected for containing undeployed airbag canisters is common.

Undeployed airbags are considered hazardous waste in most states for purposes of storage and transportation.

Ten years ago, Scrap magazine, a publication of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., published “The Growing Air Bag Problem” (September/October 2003). Many of the same issues that existed then are ones we deal with now in the scrap recycling industry.

In addition to frontal airbags, we now have side torso airbags, tubular airbags, curtain airbags, knee airbags, rear curtain airbags, seat cushion airbags, center airbags, seat belt airbags and, thanks to the Volvo V40, a pedestrian airbag. The Lexus IS, for instance, comes standard with 10 airbags.

So, here we are. We’ve been wrestling with this issue for nearly 30 years now. I wish I had the answers. I wish I had better information to present. I hope I’m all wrong about this airbag situation. I hope somebody reading this article calls me and says, “Joe, you should have called me. I’ve got the solution. Here it is.” That’s my fondest dream.

I wish I had the answer. Until I do, I’ll keep on dreaming.

Joe Bateman is safety outreach manager for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C., and can be reached at joebateman@isri.org.

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