Planning for Worst-Case Scenarios: The Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Vapor Cloud Explosion

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Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Explosion

Photo: Godofredo A. Vásquez, Staff photographer/Houston Chronicle

Early on the morning of January 24th, Watson Grinding and Manufacturing suffered what is thought to have been a vapor cloud explosion jolting an entire neighborhood awake. Situated roughly 18 miles northwest of Houston’s city center, Watson Grinding and Manufacturing makes machine parts and provides thermal spray coating and grinding services to the oil and gas, chemical, and mining industries. While the investigation is still underway, all signs are pointing to the 2,000-gallon propylene tank (just under 16,000 pounds) found leaking at the site of the potential vapor cloud explosion. This tragedy did not go unnoticed and authorities are conducting a multi-agency arson investigation (with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives being the lead agency) that will get to the bottom of why this community lost at least two beloved members and why over 200 homes and businesses suffered damage caused by this devastating explosive event.

House in watson grinding and manufacturing explosion
Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Staff Photographer / Houston Chronicle
Photo: Marie D. De Jesús /Houston Chronicle

As we sit here in the wake of this disaster, we cannot help but wonder why it happened and if there was any way to prevent it. It has been reported by the Houston Chronicle that companies with more than 10,000 pounds of propylene must acknowledge it in their Tier II chemical inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. Releasing this information to local emergency organizations is vital for mitigating risk and preventing such disasters.

Accidental explosions – no matter the cause – are significant risks to human life, finances, and reputations. When companies work with hazardous and potentially explosive substances there is always the possibility of accidents occurring. There are key measures that can be taken to protect the safety of those near a potentially hazardous site, both during pre-construction and construction phases. Properly handling and storing gas cylinders/tanks can further help to reduce safety risks over the life of an industrial manufacturing facility.

Lessons learned from disasters such as this might prepare us better for the future, but the present reality is that two people lost their lives. In this time of tragedy and loss, our thoughts and condolences are extended to those who were affected by this incident. Going beyond the minimum prescribed regulations can be the key to saving lives, reputations, and more in the face of unforeseen disasters. Partnering with experts who have an expert-level knowledge in explosion risk can be a step forward in building a safer future.

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Hinman Consulting Engineers is a world leader in protective design. We work with commercial and governmental organizations to design and engineer secure physical structures and mitigate known and unknown risk.