Procedure versus habit. Policy versus culture. Often, you’ll see advice telling people to live by intention or procedure, not habit. Adhere to a policy of the right thing to do, not the cultural norm of what may typically be done. And I’m here to tell you it’s a losing battle.

            We are creatures of habit, biologically wired to fit into the culture that prevails in our environment. The trick isn’t to deny that. The opportunity is to change our organizational habits to align with our operational intentions. Cultivate a culture at the wash that supports staff in making correct decisions when encountering unforeseen situations. Nowhere is this more impactful than when it comes to safety.

Start with a Story

            The expectations of a wash’s management team is to support organizational habits and culture. You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern car wash without clearly documented policies and procedures when it comes to safety.

            Most management teams have zero tolerance for staff violating any safety standard as a condition of employment. Yet, even when that gold standard is in place and enforced, unforeseen events can still lead to accidents.

            I know a car wash veteran, long retired from operations, who could bring a group of people to tears in laughter at his stories of near-miss accidents during his career. Big unforeseen stuff, like a car shooting from the end of the tunnel, up an embankment, launching into the air, and getting literally stuck in a tree. Only funny because nobody got hurt.

            He then jokes about all the ideas his team brainstormed to ensure it never happened again once the fire department figured out how to get the customer down from the tree. He repeated the story to new staff and explained why the procedures it helped establish were important. His staff repeated the story, and sure enough, it never happened again.

Build Meaningful Habits

            Stories support culture, which evolves into organizational habits. Those beliefs and habits fill the gaps for staff to make correct decisions when the unforeseen happens and to avoid taking shortcuts that don’t align with your organization’s culture.

            Stories don’t have to be big. They don’t need to be your own. When I train an employee to empty a vacuum separator, I don’t just say, “You must wear proper gloves.” I tell them to remember that customers can vacuum anything from razor blades to hypodermic needles. I ask them if they can guess the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen vacuumed up.

            Once they’re done trying to imagine every possible danger, I explain that wearing proper PPE is not only important to keep them safe but is required as a condition of employment. 

Refine Your Hazard Control Plan

            Storytelling, culture, and habits support your plan, but they aren’t your hazard control plan. As I shift gears to detail some key elements to review and address in refining your documented policies and procedures, remember that they work hand in hand. Both must be present and work together to achieve true success.

            Ensure all employees have quick access to up-to-date information. Despite the most careful intentions, new products find their way into our locations over time. I recommend doing a complete audit of your safety data sheets (SDS) at least once a quarter to ensure all materials are documented.

            Time is of the essence with chemical accidents. Quick access to a chemical’s hazards, precautions, first aid, and emergency contacts isn’t just federal law. It’s the chance to have a story for your staff to talk about how their fast action prevented a serious mishap.

            Document a PPE for every potential hazard. Requiring appropriate use of PPE isn’t just a practical necessity but an OSHA requirement for all affected workers. The specific PPE required can vary depending on the chemicals and services provided.

            The first step is a thorough workplace assessment. Identify areas such as low clearances, locations of flammable materials, hazardous chemicals, excessive noise, and moving machinery. Detailed documentation should associate each hazard with a specific PPE to mitigate it. For guidance on the latest technologies, start at the source by searching OSHA.gov for hazard prevention and control, where you’ll find a step-by-step guide.

            Bringing PPE and safety to the top of your team’s radar demands persistent, continuous reminders. Schedule safety meetings and/or incorporate them into your regular staff meetings. Print posters, handouts, and signage to remind staff of the importance and requirement of PPE and abiding by safety policies and procedures.

            And most important, implement a program to replenish all required PPE as it’s consumed. Never let the story “I hurt my (fill in the body part) because we ran out of (fill in the PPE)” be told at your wash.

Develop an Emergency Response Plan

            Guidance from OSHA encourages employers to have an emergency action plan ready. The advantages, such as lower workers’ comp costs, improved staff morale, and less downtime due to injuries, are more than worth the effort.

            Developing your plan demands careful planning and thoughtful consideration. This should cover items like emergency contacts and procedures, fire prevention strategies, enhancing readiness, responding to hazardous material spills, handling medical emergencies, and maintaining the overall orderly running of the site. While each car wash has unique needs, starting with the free resources available at OSHA.gov is always advised.

            Make lockout/tag out a condition of employment. Lockout/tag out dictates that any person servicing machinery or equipment must physically disable the item before working on it. This process involves identifying all energy sources for a given equipment, notifying affected employees, shutting down the equipment per the manufacturer’s guidance, and isolating the machine from its energy sources.

            A lockout device must be applied to hold the energy-isolating device in a safe or “off” position. If the lock isn’t feasible, a tagout must be used instead. Before re-energization, the inoperability of the machine must be confirmed. Removing the lockout/tagout device is only authorized by the individual who applied it unless they have left the premises and followed a predetermined and communicated plan to transfer the authority.

            Like most things, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Whether this is new to you or something you thought you had mastered, visit OSHA.gov for the latest resources you can leverage to improve your safety program. It’s free, and it’s priceless.

Be the Hero of Your Story

            I don’t care if you’re the wash owner or a guide-on attendant in your first week — your attitude and actions will contribute to the habits of a safety culture. Be that person.

            The person everyone knows never to take a safety shortcut around because they know you’ll call them out on it. The person who reminds others to wear proper PPE in such a way their teammate thanks them for reminding them. The person who notices when PPE inventory is running low and makes sure it’s restocked before it runs out. The person people tell stories about because their attitude elevates the safety of those around them.

            As for me, I never answer what the most dangerous thing is that I’ve fished out of a vacuum separator — some stories are best untold.

            Good luck and good washing.

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.