HOUSTON — The company at the center of a massive explosion that destroyed homes and sent shockwaves across Harris County is a family owned business founded in 1960.
It’s had few run-ins with government regulators, KHOU 11 Investigates found. However, it has been fined a few times for worker-safety violations, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration data.
Watson Grinding & Manufacturing specializes in manufacturing and servicing valves and pump components for industries that include chemical, offshore and aerospace, according to its website.
It was founded by James Watson as a “small specialty grinding shop” that grew “to include a full-scale machine shop to offer specialty thermal spray coatings,” its website said.
The business is located off the 4500 block of Gessner Road near Clay Road and the Beltway in northwest Houston.
The company had no environmental violations with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
OHSA fined the company at least three times since 2006. And several injuries were reported at the facility during that time, according to records. In June 2019, an employee was hospitalized after his abdomen was crushed by falling equipment that weighed over 800 pounds.
Before that, in January 2015, an employee’s right-index finger was amputated when it got caught in a piece of equipment. That prompted an inspection of the facility in 2015, which found no violations.
Two years earlier, another amputation incident ended with the company initially assessed a $13,860 fine.
And in October 2008, OSHA initially levied a $10,250 penalty for four separate violations, including an explosion risk.
“On or about October 31, 2008 the employer was not checking his gas system for leaks or deteriorations in the equipment exposing employees to serious hazards of explosion, asphyxiant and fire,” OSHA violation details read.
Separately, the company was also fined $1,225 in 2006 after a complaint.
Friday morning’s explosion destroyed part of the facility, and damaged nearby businesses and dozens of nearby homes. City officials said propylene and liquid nitrogen was released during the explosion. Propylene is a colorless gas that is highly flammable.
Photos from Air 11 show a large pile of rubble at the facility with walls torn off and holes in nearby businesses. In the adjacent neighborhoods, homes and cars with windows were shattered, garage doors were blown in, siding of homes was ripped off.
Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo called the scene “disaster area.”
At least two people were killed in the explosion, according to the Houston Police Department.
A multi-agency investigation that includes HPD, the Houston Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives is ongoing. That investigation is expected to continue into the coming days.
Acevedo with HPD urged nearby residents to report anything unusual found in their homes or yards by calling 911.
“We want to be sure we conduct a very thorough investigation,” Acevedo said.
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