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Business Operations

Safety first

October 11, 2010
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Dear Editor:
Most of us have heard about the tragic accidental death of a recent high school graduate, an 18-year-old attendant who died from injuries sustained at a franchise-owned carwash in Grand Rapids, MI. Indications are that he was the only employee on duty at the time of the accident and he was somehow entangled in equipment and seriously injured.

Unfortunately, as the only employee on site, he was unable to summon assistance after his injuries and he was found, unresponsive, by a customer at some later time. There will certainly be a lot of fallout and much more published about this accident. Michigan’s OSHA will do a thorough investigation and with today’s legal system, it seems likely there will be lawsuits filed.

The convenience store business has struggled with the question of whether it’s appropriate to have only a single employee on the premises and while the safety concerns are different, in many ways they are exactly the same. As some c-store owners reduce costs by cutting staff to one, the risk of an injury of any kind or a robbery leading to much more serious consequences becomes greater.

A single employee is more of a target than two; and a single employee who is injured may not be able to call 911 or obtain other assistance. And in the absolute worst case scenario, such as what just happened in Grand Rapids, an injured employee can die.

As the level of automation at carwashes has increased, and the amount of manual prepping has decreased, there are some carwash operators who feel that a single employee on site is enough.

I believe that conveyorized carwashes which operate with only a single employee on duty introduce an unacceptable level of risk in the event of an accidental injury. A single employee in the case of an emergency may be unable to summon help, turn off equipment, or otherwise handle the emergency in a way to minimize possible injury to himself, a guest, or customer.

Accidents can happen, and do, at every kind of business. My family built its first carwash in 1950, and like many of you, I have carwashing in my blood. I started at our full-service carwash when I was in high school, and my college has been the school of hard knocks for almost 40 years.

We have had accidents, some involving personal injury, and one quite serious. As a company with 75 or so employees, we take very seriously our commitment to providing a safe workplace. While we can’t avoid every possible injury or accident, we can and do have a written company policy which requires a minimum two people, on site at each of our conveyorized carwashes.

A conveyorized carwash has several conditions which can contribute to an accident including: wet and slippery floors; moving machinery which may start automatically by an approaching vehicle; moving vehicles, driven by people who may or may not be familiar with the premises, and the always possible armed robbery potential.

Our exterior carwashes are fully automated. We could save a lot of money by running them with a single employee. But our commitment to our employees and their safety does not allow us to put them in that situation.

I hope that those who profit from franchising and those who are new to this industry or considering getting into it allow this young man’s death to impact their thinking and planning.

Carwashing is a great business. Conveyorized carwashing with a single attendant is a risky business. Franchised carwashing designed around low prices and an inexpensive carwash service that works in one geographic region may not work as well in other regions.

New investors, whether purchasing a franchise or setting off on their own, may not fully grasp the difficulties involved in operating a carwash safely.

And the safety of carwash employees, often young people with limited workplace experience, is one of the challenging management issues that we all (should) face. Ethical business practices and common sense suggest that a business which has the personal injury possibilities that conveyorized carwashes have inherent should not be operated by a single employee, alone.

Mark Ellis
Southland Auto Wash
Grand Rapids, Michigan