Consider a typical day at your carwash. Your carwash equipment is hard at work shining up a car with a low-concentrated cleaning solution when the chemical accidentally splashes on an employee’s pant leg and shoe, and it soaks through the clothing.

However, since the employee doesn’t feel any pain, he continues to work without washing it off. Ninety minutes later, his leg and foot finally begin to sting, and the pain escalates alarmingly. It turns out that the cleaning solution contains a harmful acidic ingredient, something you might not have considered during purchasing.

Emergency medical technicians are brought in to treat the employee, but the third-degree burns are so severe that he must be brought to a burn unit and given a skin graft. Afterwards, due to a chronic numbness in his foot, the employee is put on permanent partial disability.

This is a true story, reported by the Associated Press in The Seattle Times in 2015, and it illustrates just how easily one misstep can cause a life-altering accident. Of course, there are two sides to this story.

Related article: Carwash safety risk assessment: Part one

Certainly, the employee was directly responsible for the accident by not immediately washing the solution off his clothes and skin; however, the carwash should also have been responsible for making sure that its employees were aware of the various dangers around the carwash.

Commenting on this story, Vicky Adams, senior category manager for safety, gloves and foodservice products for Impact Products, says, “Proper and ongoing training  every two months, if not more if there is considerable turnover  would have prevented this [accident]. The worker would have been much more aware of the potential danger in using this chemical, would likely have used it much more carefully and, as a result, would have protected himself.”

Direct and indirect costs

Having a carwash safety program does not just ensure that your employees stay safe; it also impacts the success of your business as well.

Mike Benmosche, CIC, national car wash program manager for McNeil & Co., adds, “A regular training program not only protects your employees and customers from bodily harm and your property from physical damage, [but] it can also significantly improve your bottom line.”

There are both direct and indirect costs associated with accident claims. Direct costs are the claims you have to physically pay. Indirect costs are the expenses that are not necessarily measured in dollars, but impact profits nonetheless.

According to Benmosche, just a sample of the indirect costs that can arise from a workplace accident occurring are:

  • Time lost by supervisors investigating the accident
  • Time lost by supervisors and clerical staff completing paperwork
  • Damage to tools and equipment
  • Downtime when damaged equipment is out of service
  • Cost of training and acclimatizing a new employee
  • Loss of efficiency due to the break-up of the crew
  • Loss of production and productivity
  • Loss of business due to a damaged public image
  • Failure to provide prompt service
  • Time lost by other employees dis-cussing the accident
  • Loss of employee morale and good-will toward the company.

As for the direct costs that can accumulate, Benmosche provides the following example: “Using a $1,500 claim and adding the approximate dollars spent for these indirect costs, calculated with a formula developed by the National Safety Council, an operator’s final payout for this claim would be another $6,750 or $8,250 total. Drilling down even further … let’s assume a 25 percent profit margin for this business. That means that in order to cover the total costs associated with this incident, the wash would need to generate $33,000 in sales. That’s money that could have gone to the bank.”

And, of course, there is the competition to consider. If your business has more claims than your competitors, consider how many more cars you will have to wash just to keep up with their normal pace of operations. Since they do not have to spend extra money on insurance claims, they can instead invest in improvements and upgrades, putting them at an advantage.

“Eventually, they may out-distance you to the point that you will no longer be able to compete in their market,” Benmosche warns.

Establishing a carwash safety program

Prevention is the best medicine, as they say, and the only way to prevent your business from accumulating these costs is by preparing both your employees and facilities.

“It is critical to train employees on workplace safety to reduce any harm to them, our customers or their vehicles and to simply reduce the bottom line,” says Lanese Barnett, director of marketing for The Car Wash Companies. “Create a culture of safety. Teach all employees to be aware of their surroundings and be assertive.”

Carwash safety training should begin from the moment of hire. For instance, Adams suggests, “Instead of actually going to work the first week or so of employment, ‘work’ may involve watching videos and attending classes with other new workers to learn how to work with cleaning solutions along with proper cleaning procedures. Typically, this is followed by some sort of mentoring program where the new staffer works directly with an experienced cleaning worker, actually performing cleaning duties as he or she has been trained. This helps instill safety awareness along with professionalism.”

Related article: Seven ways to increase safety at your new carwash

Benmosche agrees that a combination of reviewing the employee manual, outlining your wash’s policies and procedures, and showing videos of unsafe or out-of-bounds areas for certain employees, especially new ones, is the best policy.

In addition, he says, “Whatever you decide is appropriate, it is also desirable for owners to document all training sessions with a signed roll call and to be sure to maintain these records.”

Not only do these roll calls allow owners and managers to keep track of who has completed training, but they also serve as a way to hold employees accountable if they do commit a safety infraction.

In order to keep employees conscious of carwash safety practices past the initial training session, Barnett suggests holding monthly safety meetings with staff to keep them up-to-date on any safety procedure updates as well as to review their safety performances.

Promoting a safer work environment

In addition to establishing a carwash safety program, you can also take steps to reduce accidents caused by simple ignorance or unawareness. For instance, the chances of slip and fall accidents occurring at carwashes are extremely high. Therefore, steps should be taken to minimize risk in this area of your business.

“One of the best ways to help prevent slip and fall accidents is to ensure that proper matting is installed in work as well as in customer areas,” says Adams, adding that no one mat fits all areas of the carwash. “Some mats are designed to allow water to flow through and under the mat, ensuring the top surface of the mat stays safe and dry. While this mat would work well in the actual work area of the carwash, it is not the type of mat that someone would want to select to ensure the safety and cleanliness of their customer waiting area.”

Adams recommends that carwash owners and managers work with a knowledgeable distributor to help figure out which mats are needed for different areas of the carwash.

In addition, placing safety signs around the carwash is also a way to promote risk awareness. If the cost of putting in safety equipment and signage makes you balk at the idea, you should consider the big picture.

“The cost of this equipment and/or signage is still minimal in comparison to an OSHA fine, even if you do not have a claim,” Benmosche warns. “A surprise visit by OSHA may lead to a costly penalty imposed by them that is often due within a 30-day period. They don’t care if it’s a rainy season and cash flow is tight. [Therefore, a] solid safety program is one of [the] smartest long-term investments you can make in this industry.”

Following protocol

Maintaining a culture of carwash safety does not simply start and stop with safety programs and equipment. Your wash must be actively committed to safety, and this commitment must be obvious to your employees.

For instance, you should not only provide personal protection equipment (PPE) but also make sure it is clean, well-maintained and easily accessible in the areas where this equipment is most often used and needed.

In addition, Barnett provides some basic carwash safety protocols that all carwashes should practice:

  • Never hose down a tunnel while the equipment is operating
  • When an employee is up on a ladder, always have another employee hold the base
  • Install lock-out systems in the equipment room (an OSHA requirement)
  • Limit employee access to chemical products and educate them on the safe handling procedures per each chemical’s safety data sheet (SDS)
  • Have a dedicated maintenance professional on staff in case of equipment malfunction.

According to Benmosche, “Immediate action should be taken for employees who are observed not following safety precautions or using proper PPE. This can be in the form of a coaching moment or disciplinary action in accordance with the seriousness of the action. This will show the staff consistency and follow-through for safety at all times. They need to understand the severity of noncompliance along with the consequences.”

However, while punishment may indeed inspire a need to follow carwash safety protocol, giving out rewards also has its benefits.

“The combination of reward and potential punitive action may prove to be the best solution to obtain the desired employee acceptance of your safety protocols,” Benmosche says.

A clever example, Benmosche des-cribes, is of a carwash owner who calculated the approximate yearly cost for small, out-of-pocket claims, put that money in the bank and divided the total by 12 to arrive at a monthly figure. He then told his employees that they would divvy up the remainder of this figure after these small claims were paid each month. The owner, Benmosche says, figured he was out this money either way and left his employees responsible for whether they would earn a little extra each month.

“When it comes to personal safety and product safety,” Adams concludes, “the goal is to always make a thought-based decision. There is no room for trial-and-error.”

For more information on carwash safety, see CarWash Safety 101.