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Think Broadly and Strategically to Prevent Heat-Related Injuries Among Car Wash Employees 

by Tim McGinnis, Safety, Health, & Risk Manager / Howco Inc. 

The summer months with their intrinsic school break present an opportune time to hire employees for your car wash business. Most of these new team members will be younger and possibly facing safety challenges specific to the car wash industry for the first time. 

One of those hazards is outdoor work during hot weather. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, on average nationwide, there are an estimated 702 deaths; 67,512 emergency room visits; and 9,235 individuals hospitalized per year due to environmental heat exposure. These statistics encompass people working in a variety of industries, including car washing. 

Let’s address what you can do to protect your employees, including recognizing often unexpected exposures, as well as what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is planning to implement to prevent heat-related injuries.  

When we think of a car wash lot and heat dangers, we automatically focus on areas of the property with direct sun exposure. Whether you own a full-service or an express location, when your employees are loading and detailing vehicles or conducting lot maintenance, they are exposed to direct sunlight and elevated temperatures. 

If you have a heat safety plan in place, you’ve probably addressed the need to provide and encourage drinking water. You may also practice rotating people on breaks, especially during extremely hot days. Perhaps you’ve even built sunshades or erected portable gazebos for sun relief where your employees work.  

Now think further about your heat injury prevention strategies. Does your company provide hats and/or sunscreen to protect employees from sun exposure? Does your safety plan educate them on the importance of eating a proper meal before a shift and limiting alcohol consumption the previous day? Do you encourage them to limit sugary drinks such as soda and steer away from consuming only sports drinks, instead teaching them that water should be their number one drink while working? 

Have you also thought about other spots for heat-related hazards on your property?  

One area that car washers may miss addressing are the shaded entry and cashier locations. Operators and employees assume those areas are a little cooler and that team members there are not at direct risk for heat exposure. However, this has proven to be a false sense of safety. 

When an employee works in those shaded areas for an extended period, they tend to drink less water, precisely because it is cooler and shadier. Further, the constant cool breeze created by the car wash tunnel means nearby employees may perspire but not see any visible sweat, leading to stealthy dehydration. Once a worker finally feels thirsty and decides to drink water, they may already be a victim of a heat-related injury. 

Several years ago, OSHA noticed an uptick of heat-related injuries and deaths, especially in the construction and manufacturing worlds. The agency began researching the various causes, such as elevated temperatures, poor work practices, and environmental concerns, both indoor and out. OSHA then announced an impending heat standard that will be released in the next year or two, with an initial goal of late 2025 (although this could change). 

What does this mean for you as a car wash owner? 

If you have a solid employee safety plan in place and are implementing those good practices, you are ahead of the curve. However, if you have nothing established and/or have high reporting of heat-related injuries, you could become an area of focus and draw an inspection, as the heat standard will likely be an emphasis item. 

While OSHA’s focus will be on the other aforementioned industries, car washes are also susceptible to scrutiny, as we are one of the few industries that lets the public observe nearly every facet of what we do.  

In closing, regardless of OSHA’s oversight, you have the power to make sure heat-related injuries are not a factor affecting your employees. Not only should you have an established safety plan, but you must also ensure your employees are informed about your expectations and follow the plan as prescribed. Ensuring they have adequate water, breaks, and shade is paramount to helping protect them, allowing them to process and wash cars without risk of a heat-related injury.  

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