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A car wash failed to adequately guard workers from a conveyor system and must pay a fine of nearly $10,000, held an administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission in a final decision released Thursday.
In Secretary of Labor v. CWP Asset Corp. d/b/a Mister Car Wash, the commission judge affirmed a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation after an employee suffered a serious foot injury.
In 2014, the El Paso, Texas-based car wash owned by CWP Asset Corp. of Houston, Texas, changed the way employees dried cars. Previously, employees waited outside the car wash bay until the customers parked their vehicles in the drying areas. In 2014, however, the car wash moved drying inside the last portion of the car wash bay, and employees were taught to dry vehicles while positioned along the side of the vehicle, since they were working on either side of a conveyor system designed to move cars via a series of rollers that push the vehicles along a track. When a vehicle exits the track, the rollers move downward into a hole in the floor, and beneath the hole are a sprocket and chain of the car conveyor system. The hole is equipped with a trap door designed to be pushed back by the incoming roller, but when it’s waiting to receive rollers, it sits two and a half inches off the ground.
On June 8, 2017, an employee suffered a severe injury requiring hospitalization when he crossed over the conveyor after drying a vehicle and his foot slipped in the hole and was caught in the conveyor’s sprocket and chain.
After the accident, an inspector with the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued a single-item citation for a serious violation related to the employer’s alleged failure to guard the sprocket and chain for the car conveyor.
The car wash contested the citation, arguing that the exiting guard was adequate and that the injured worker’s injury was the result of unpreventable employee misconduct. In a one-day trial in El Paso, an administrative law judge held that the employer placed its employees close to the hazard by shifting its drying operations inside the car wash bay, and that therefore, it was reasonably predictable that employees would be in the zone of danger created by the void over the conveyor’s sprocket and chain. He said that because of the change in work practice, the employer “had a commensurate responsibility” to make sure any nip points or rotating parts were adequately protected but failed to do so.
The administrative judge found that the Secretary of Labor showed that it was “reasonably predictable” that employees have been or will be in the zone of danger of the gap left between the trap door and the end of the conveyor, and noted that employees testified that the area tended to be wet and slippery and that work rules appeared to inconsistently understood and enforced. Although the car wash claimed that its policy prohibits stepping onto or over the conveyor belt while its in operation, the administrative judge found that employees were working in areas known to be wet and slippery and that the car wash’s rules were “not consistently enforced, if at all.” Because employees were exposed to a hazard, and its managers knew of the danger of the trap door, the judge said, the car wash had a duty to ensure the conveyor was properly guarded.
The administrative judge also held that the employee’s injuries were sufficiently severe to merit a serious violation citation, and that the penalty of $9,234 assessed against the car wash was appropriate.
A spokesperson for Mister Car Wash said the company disagrees with the court’s interpretation of the applicable OSHA standards and has improved its safety standards over the past two years by removing soft drops on conveyor trap doors, increasing safety notifications, improving water quality and blower systems to eliminate employee side drying and enhancing training on conveyor safety. The spokesperson said the measures have resulted in a 20% decrease in employee injury rates since 2017.
A chemical used to wash commercial vehicles can seriously endanger the people who work with it, according to new research by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.