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They might not get as much attention as the mechanical moving parts of a carwash, but chemicals used for cleaning also pose a potential danger to employees — even getting a relatively safe soap in the eyes can cause an irritation. Therefore, carwash owners and operators need to make sure they’re doing everything they can to educate employees and teach proper handling and storage.
Every chemical is potentially dangerous
Dan Kramer, technical director of Stone Soap Company of Sylvan Lake, MI, a company that manufactures a complete line of liquid and powder carwash products, said that “safe” chemicals may be a misnomer.
“All products used in a carwash, even products used in the home, carry some degree of risk associated with their use and handling,” Kramer explained. He said that foaming shampoo may have very little risk associated with it, while a tire cleaner may carry a greater degree of risk.
Robert Andre, president of Tamarac, FL-based CarWash College, agreed. “When you look at carwashing, the chemicals that are used can almost always be dangerous if used in the wrong way. Always follow the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for safety.”
Andre teaches chemical safety as part of the curriculum at CarWash College and said education is one of the best ways to prevent incidents at your carwash.
According to Steve Okun, developer of the flex-serve operating platform who owns the FL-based SMOKUN & Associates, special training classes that familiarize and educate the entire staff to proper chemical identification, handling and use should be a mandatory requirement of employment. Okun also suggested that copies of all MSDS information should be furnished to every employee with a signed receipt as standard safety practice.
“These chemical safety sheets should be available in multilingual formats and all chemicals should be labeled and coded in English and every other language needed to satisfy clear understanding by all employees,” Okun said.
Kramer thinks training and retraining veteran employees is a good idea. “Employees, even those of long standing, should be updated annually on the products used in the wash and the precautions that should be taken when handling each one.”
Although proper protection might sometimes feel excessive, Kramer said it is necessary and that employees handling wash chemicals should always wear an apron, gloves and face shield or goggles. “This may seem like overkill, but employees and lab personnel at detergent manufacturers wear this protection. Wash employees should be entitled to the same level of protection.”
Know these misnomers
A common misconception is that acidic solutions (low PH) are dangerous, but alkaline (high PH) are not. According to Andre, employees working with either type of solution should exercise caution as both can be just as dangerous.
Okun also touched down on the alkaline cleaner misconception. “Safer chemicals are becoming much more effective, but the imprudent yet powerful lure of cheap unsafe alkaline cleaners and high-risk acids that work quicker and cost less are still widely used,” he said.
“Worse yet, their dangers are frequently hidden from unsuspecting or unsophisticated workers simply to improve bottom line production costs.”
One of the recurring topics in Andre’s classes is hydrofluoric acid (HF), one of the most dangerous chemicals used in the carwash industry. “This chemical,” Andre explained, “has the ability to cause severe injury and even death. Hydrofluoric acid is extremely corrosive and a contact poison.”
Andre said operators who use HF should handle the chemical with extreme care because of its low dissociation constant, which allows HF to penetrate tissue more quickly. Operators should also be choosy in who they allow to handle the chemical. Anyone using HF should be aware that symptoms of exposure to hydrofluoric acid may not be immediately evident as it interferes with nerve function and burns may not initially be painful.
Exposure to HF can go unnoticed, delaying treatment and increasing the extent and seriousness of the injury. It can etch bone, and since it penetrates the skin it can weaken bones without destroying the skin. More seriously, it can be absorbed into blood through skin and react with blood calcium, causing cardiac arrest.
“Besides the health risk, the chemical can also cause severe wear on almost any thing it comes into contact with. I have seen complete conveyors worn to the point of no repair,” Andre cautioned.
Kramer echoed the same warnings as Andre. He said Stone Soap has opposed the use of HF for the past 20 years. “Hydrofluoric acid is not dangerous, it is deadly,” he said. “Inhalation of the vapors allow the acid to be taken into the bloodstream and causes the body to excrete calcium, found mainly in the bones.”
Kramer said HF is most commonly found in presoak detergents and wall cleaners. Operators need to weigh the risks (physical harm to you, employees and your wash equipment) with the benefits.
Okun said another chemical to look out for is ammonium bifluoride (ABF). “In my opinion, both HF and ABF are too dangerous for use in today's commercial carwashes due to their inherent health and safety risks. Both require significant safeguards that are not practical for carwash operations.