Auto Laundry News - January 2011

Risk Management — Reconsider Common Practices

By Robert Roman

During the planning phase of a car wash, most investors will take measures to minimize the threat intensity of business operating risks by doing things like planning for management and technical training and insurance.

By doing so, car wash owners hope to prevent business operating risks from reducing productivity, cost effectiveness, profitability, quality, reputation, brand value, and earnings quality.

In managing business operating risks, owners will usually prioritize; the risks with the greatest loss, and the greatest probability of occurring, are handled first. Risks with lower probability of occurrence and lower loss are handled in descending order.

This process can be difficult. Balancing a risk with a high probability of occurrence, but lower loss, versus a
risk with high loss, but lower probability of occurrence, can be mishandled sometimes. In some cases, a risk can be ignored.

For example, it is not uncommon to find many in-bay automatic and conveyor car wash facilities with open bay designs. This means no sidewall and/or a wash bay without automatic doors.

Although commonplace in warmer climates, this is a practice that every owner of an automatic car wash may want to reconsider.

Several years ago, I was engaged as an expert in a case involving the death of a child. This tragedy occurred at a self-service car wash (wands and in-bay) sharing property with a small gasoline station and convenience store.

While the mother and grandmother were cleaning the inside of their car at one of the vacuum islands, they somehow unintentionally lost track of exactly who was minding the whereabouts of their 18 month-old toddler. Unfortunately, the child managed to wander over to the in-bay automatic and, unseen, entered the wash-bay.

The child was next seen by a mother and her son sitting inside their vehicle while it was being washed. In the ensuing horror and melee of horn blowing and trying to move the vehicle to get the equipment to stop, the child tripped
and fell down or was knocked over by the gantry, became trapped under one leg of the boom and received critical injuries to her head. Following this, accusations were made.

The women’s attorney asserted the car wash contained a defect and the defect resulted in the death of the child. The other side asserted the women were responsible because they did not take sufficient care to protect the health and welfare of the child.

Next was an attempt to “discover” the pertinent facts. This meant depositions, interrogatories, and requests for admissions, document production, and inspection.

Subsequently, a forensic engineer determined that the car wash contained an unguarded hazard as constituted by moving machinery that can entrap and crush a person.

Specifically mentioned was an electrical conduit and waterline attached to the concrete floor that increases the probability of slip and fall. A wet stall floor increases the probability of slip and fall during operation of the car wash. Finally, a gap between the bottom of the gantry boom and concrete floor sufficiently large enough so that portions of a person’s body can be trapped.

The engineer concluded that when a hazard exists that could seriously injure or cause death, and the hazard can be economically and technologically eliminated or safeguarded without impairing the function of the machine, the machine contains a defect. The engineer found the hazard was not only unguarded but no warnings of the hazard or administrative controls, like an attendant, were present.

In the end, this case was settled out of court at the insistence of the car wash equipment manufacturer.

The uninvited guest poses special problems for certain car wash owners. In-bay sites are unattended for the most part and open 24/7. It is not practical to constantly watch a surveillance monitor screen. Many customers don’t read instructional or warning signs, and toddlers and pre-schoolers can’t read.

Arguably, something as simple as having automatic doors that open and close only when vehicles enter or exit the wash-bay would mitigate potential hazards and risks.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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