Finishing Line - September 2009

Acids — Safety in the Car Wash
By Robert Roman


As with other commercial enterprises, the car wash industry has endured its share of work-related injuries and fatalities. Car wash employees have been injured from mishaps involving pit grading, conveyors, rotating brushes, ladders, and other equipment. In the most tragic of circumstances, customers and employees have died from accidents involving the movement of vehicles. Common experience has shown that every one of these accidents and fatalities could have been avoided through prevention.

Car wash employees have also been injured from using chemicals. For example, in March 1999, Brian Hauck, a Health Compliance Officer with Oregon OSHA, reported that a car wash worker was afflicted with severe tissue burns on his feet after spilling a cleaner on his shoes. The cleaner had been diluted to a solution that contained approximately 2 percent hydrofluoric acid (HF). According to Hauck, with this low concentration, the warning sensation of pain was delayed and the HF had saturated deep into the worker’s tissues before he sought medical attention. This car wash worker lost three weeks of work.

Another horror story occurred in October 1999, in Grand Rapids, MI, where a female car wash worker lost several fingers after being exposed to an aluminum cleaner containing HF. More recently, there was the hubbub created by WTHR’s (Indianapolis, IN), investigative story about an express car wash chain’s alleged use of HF in the company’s pre-soak and wheel cleaner (The Cost of Clean, May, 2008).

The pathophysiology and employee health risk of using dangerous chemicals like HF and ammonium bifluoride (ABF) is well documented in the literature. Fatal unintentional occupational poisonings by HF in the United States are rare. For an 11-year period, OSHA investigated nine deaths in eight incidents. Research has shown there are about 1,000 cases of HF exposure reported annually in the United States, with the vast majority occurring in industrial settings. The actual incident rate is unknown, however, because of the lack of unique coding for this acid in hospital records and vital statistics. Moreover, researchers have concluded that some victims do not receive appropriate medical care, nor are all incidents reported to the regional poison control center.

In 1999, it was reported that the International Carwash Association (ICA) had taken no formal position on the use of HF. According to then-executive director Mark Thorsby, the association was concerned about the safety of car wash employees and customers. “If you insist on using it,” says Thorsby, “use it safely and in the prescribed concentrations.”

In WTHR’s investigative story in 2008, Thorsby says his organization was still concerned about splashing and spilling of hydrofluoric acid at car washes because “it’s not healthy for people to come in contact with it.” But he says ICA, which represents more than 25,000 car washes in a $24 billion per year industry, is not opposed to car washes using HF, as long as they do so safely. At that time, Thorsby said that HF was used in less than 25 percent of car washes and that number was declining every day. However, safely using dangerous chemicals in the car wash industry still seems to be a problem for some operators.

According to a story in the Cedartown Standard, Mr. Jerry Wayne Short, 27, was injured on the job on March 31, 2009 when he was reportedly exposed to a hydrochloric-sulfuric chemical while working at a car wash in Cedartown, GA.

Mr. Short suffered injuries to his face, neck, and arms and he also breathed in the acid causing injuries to his lungs. Mr. Short was taken to the Floyd Medical Center and then flown by jet to Atlanta where he was transferred by ambulance to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, Augusta, GA. According to spokesperson Beth Frits, Mr. Short was discharged from the burn center on April 2.

According to Mr. Short’s mother Judy, Jerry also experienced a similar injury last September when he was treated for acid burns to his hand. His mother said that he nearly lost his thumb and fingers in that incident.

Apparently, some car wash operators still aren’t getting it. Perhaps it is time for the ICA to take a firm position and stand against the use of dangerous chemicals like HF. Most car wash chemical manufacturers have. After all, what is more important, the health and safety of car wash workers or ruffling the sensibility of some car wash operators?

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services ( and vice president of Bubble Wash Buildings LLC. You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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