People living in northwest Houston were awakened early
Friday morning, Jan. 24, by a tremendous explosion. A dramatic doorbell-camera video taken from a
nearby neighborhood shows a brilliant flash followed by a rising fireball, and
then the camera is knocked off its mountings by the arriving shock wave.
The explosion demolished much of Watson Grinding and
Manufacturing, killed two workers, injured about 20 people, and damaged some
400 homes and other structures nearby, 35 of them seriously.
Investigators from the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms determined that the cause was likely a spark that set off propylene
gas leaking from a 2,000-gallon tank, which was later secured by HazMat crews. The family of one man killed in the explosion
has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, and Harris County has filed suit on behalf of
its residents because it claims the firm failed to exercise due care to protect
Chemical explosions and fires are nothing new to the
residents of Greater Houston and the coastal region near it, which has one of
the largest concentrations of refineries and petrochemical plants in the world. The things you can make by tormenting
hydrocarbons and other materials with extreme heat and pressure are valuable to
the world’s economy, and so a lot of money goes into building plants and
equipment that necessarily involve dangerous materials and processes.
At this point it is rather speculative to ask what Watson
Grinding and Manufacturing was doing with all that propylene. The most likely answer is that they were
using it as a substitute for the even more hazardous acetylene in welding
operations and other applications requiring lots of gas-fueled heat, such as
heat treating. Propylene is a gas at
room temperature, but like other light hydrocarbon compounds, it can be
compressed into liquid form, and that is probably how it was stored in the
One news report points out that any facility where more than
10,000 pounds of propylene are stored has to conform to certain reporting
requirements, which Watson Grinding and Manufacturing apparently failed to
do. By my calculations, 2000 gallons of
the stuff weighs just about exactly 10,000 pounds, so they may have squeaked
under the wire on this one. Regardless
of such reporting, it’s obvious that not only did a serious propylene leak
occur, no alarms were set off by gas-leak detectors, which these days are not
that expensive. The two employees killed
were in the facility’s gym, exercising before a work day they never had.
Did these men, who were probably glad to have reasonably
well-paying manufacturing jobs, deserve to die?
I can’t imagine anyone saying “Yes” to that. Yet they knew, or may have known, that the
stuff they were working with was dangerous, and now and then things go wrong
even in the best-run facilities. A
society can be judged by the way it deals with clear cases of injustice, and many
industrial accidents fall into that category.
The people who own and/or operate the facility rarely spend
much time on the shop floor, exposed to the hazards that they have
created. The people who are injured are
killed are either low-level operatives or sometimes just innocent bystanders
who could afford only the kind of housing you find in the vicinity of
manufacturing districts. The days when
factory owners would build a mansion next door to the plant are long gone.
We don’t have to imagine an alternative universe where
regulations on manufacturing would be so tight that hardly anyone, down to the
lowliest worker, would be at risk of injury or death. We have only to look to places such as
Amherst, Massachusetts, where I worked for many years. The regulatory and civic environment was such
that anyone wanting to run a plant offering hazards more serious than a paper
cut had to flee to another location, such as Sunderland or Hadley. If some dictator (I won’t say anything about
the current candidates for presidential nominations) managed to implement
Massachusetts-style federal regulations on the whole country, including
Houston, why, Houston would be a much safer place to be. It would also turn into a ghost town, or
large sections of it would, because the thing that has already happened to a
great deal of manufacturing activity in the U. S. might well happen to the petrochemical
and refining industries and all their ancillary commercial infrastructure as
well: it would move offshore to places
less hostile to hazardous commercial activity.
This is not to set up a false two-way choice between prosperity
and death for workers on the one hand, and third-world poverty and safety on
the other hand. There is a third way,
one that allows for dangerous manufacturing processes, but with due attention
paid to the hazards involved.
To their credit, most of the firms doing hazardous
manufacturing manage to keep their workers reasonably safe most of the
time. If factories blew up every day, it
wouldn’t be news. Still, every explosion
reveals a failure of attention:
attention to what might go wrong and diligence in stopping it from going
wrong before it gets too far.
In the coming months, investigators and lawyers will find
out a lot about how Watson Grinding and Manufacturing dealt with these
problems. The most important
“machinery” in a plant is invisible:
it’s the network of minds and human relations that keep the place going while
enforcing a culture of safety, and back up that culture with needed
resources—or not, as the case may be. It’s
obvious that something went wrong: a
leak that began small got bigger, a leak detector that should have sounded the
alarm was malfunctioning or not purchased in the first place, and an
unfortunate combination of circumstances culminated in the tragedy caught on
the doorbell camera.
The word “love” is rarely brought up in discussions
of engineering ethics, but in the proper context, it provides the foundation
for good corporate and industrial behavior.
Here’s a question that those in charge at Watson could ask themselves. Take someone you love—a son, daughter,
spouse—and answer this question: would
you want your beloved to work at any job in your plant? For years?
If not, why not? The answer to
those questions can motivate improvements that could prevent things like the
explosion at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in the future. But only if they are asked, and answered in
the right way, with actions as well as words.