Houston Plant Explosion Provides Reminder of OSHA Compliance

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A fatal explosion at a Houston industrial facility late last month is sending an important reminder about OSHA compliance and catastrophe-scale events.

As reported by The New York Times, the explosion occurred on January 24, 2020 shortly after 4:00 a.m. at the Watson Grinding & Manufacturing facility in northwest Houston. Officials state the blast was so powerful it could be heard and felt by local residents within a 2-mile radius. Some homeowners reported debris on their property as far as 1.5 miles away, while others reported broken windows, roof collapse, and foundation movement.

Ultimately, the explosion damaged over 200 nearby homes and destroyed at least 50 others – with the Westbranch and Carverdale neighborhoods being the most severely affected.

Two employees, who had arrived in the early morning to use the company’s gym facilities and were the only workers on site at the time – were killed in the blast. Officials are currently investigating whether a third death of a nearby resident may be linked to the explosion.

Far-Reaching Consequences

As a Houston-based firm that handles OSHA matters, Hendershot Cowart P.C. expresses our condolences to all affected and displaced by the explosion, as well as the families who’ve lost loved ones in this terrible tragedy.

While local, state, and federal investigators work to determine an underlying cause, and whether the explosion could have been prevented, the incident serves as a sobering reminder of why it’s so important to prioritize work site safety – both in terms of protecting workers and communities, and shielding companies from catastrophic repercussions.

With what’s currently known and coming to light, it’s clear such events have far-reaching consequences:

  • Regulatory Penalties: Tanks containing gas propylene – a highly flammable and combustible fuel gas that burns hotter than propane – were located on the site and were involved in the explosion and subsequent fire. Propylene is used widely in the chemical and plastics industries as an alternative for heating and cutting and as a fuel gas for high-velocity oxygen fuel (HVOF) processes. Although no definitive cause has been confirmed, federal agents say the suspected cause was an electrical spark which ignited a leaking tank, both of which could constitute significant violations of OSHA standards, and result in considerable penalties.
  • Civil Suits & Bankruptcy: Watson is currently facing a number of civil lawsuits from victims, businesses, and homeowners affected by the blast. Following the explosion, it ceased operations, terminated roughly 80 employees, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While the company plans to resume operations during reorganization to marshal assets for an orderly claims process, its faced criticism from the presiding U.S. bankruptcy judge, who chastised Watson executives for prioritizing its financial struggles above the community’s when it filed an emergency motion asking to settle a bank loan with a $3M payout.
  • Community Concerns: Amid concerns and criticism from local citizens, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has called for a federal investigation into Watson, which her office has named in complaints sent to the EPA and Department of Homeland Security. Lee is also introducing legislation which would require industrial facilities located within 500 feet of residential housing to report the chemicals they use to local jurisdictions for assessment of their flammability and toxicity. Currently, Houston lacks the comprehensive zoning ordinances and laws to effectively regulate hazardous industrial facilities’ proximity to residential urban or rural areas.

OSHA Oversight & Violation History

The considerable blowback Watson Grinding & Manufacturing Co. is facing is exacerbated by findings that the family-owned machining company – which makes and services parts and thermal spray coatings for the aerospace, power utility, chemical, fertilizer, and oil / gas industries – has had a record of workplace safety issues. This includes:

  • Previous Serious Violations: Watson Grinding & Manufacturing and its sister company Watson Valve Services have been was cited for several serious violations by OSHA. In 2013, the company was cited for two serious violations related to lockout / tagout standards for the control of hazardous energy (OSHA Standard Number 1910.147) and failing to protect workers from machines). The fine was initially assessed at $13,400. It had previously received a serious violation in 2008, and paid a fine of $5,250.
  • Worker Injuries: There have been several reported incidents involving Watson employees who suffered injuries in workplace accidents, including one worker who lost an index finger in a lathe at the plant in 2015, and another who was hospitalized after being crushed / caught-in-between equipment when an 800+ pound metal shaft tipped over in 2019.
  • Referral Inspection: Watson’s last OSHA inspection was a Referral Inspection in 2015, and while details of its origins are unclear, such inspections commonly stem from employee complaints or injuries. The partial inspection notes an emphasis for “Fabmetsh” (a Region IV local emphasis program which stands for Fabricated Metal Products and covers, among other areas, flammable liquids) and “Amputate” (a National Emphasis Program to address machinery which pose amputation risks, and ensure proper machine guarding).
  • Employee OSHA Complaints: In an article from the Houston Chronicle, one former Watson employee discussed a formal safety complaint filed with OSHA in 2006. The complaint described failures to securely fasten equipment to the floor, and employees who used grinders and carbide spray without personal protective equipment (PPE). OSHA responded with recommendations for several citations.

As is the case here, evidence of past “serious” violations – a citation classification resulting from workplace hazards with substantial risks for worker injury or death that employers knew or should have known about – do no favors for companies in dire need of catastrophe management. More importantly, they subject employees and communities to considerable dangers, and create exposure to significant fines, abatement costs, and greater oversight under OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

In an effort to avoid speculation or detract from the tragic circumstances, this incident is yet another reminder of the importance of comprehensive and consistent OSHA compliance. In addition to helping employers protect their workforce, proactive compliance can help limit exposure to some of the most devastating consequences – including catastrophes, fatalities, and the reputational harm, outrage, and ancillary civil suits and legal proceedings which threaten brands and bottom lines.

HCH is a Houston-based law firm that actively counsels and represents clients throughout Texas and beyond in a range of OSHA matters – from OSHA inspections and proactive job hazard analyses to citations defense and catastrophe management. Contact us to speak with an attorney.

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