February 14, 2019 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

I saw the title of the paper ….Car Wash Workers. Immediately the 1976 R&B hit from the movie soundtrack invaded my brain… Working at the car wash, yeah

Well, those cars never seem to stop coming
(Work and work)
Keep those rags and machines humming
(Work and work)
My fingers to the bone
Can’t wait ’til it’s time to go home

The paper that caught my attention reports on findings from a survey of car wash workers in New York City. The researchers interviewed 70 workers about hazards and safety protections at their job, as well as work-related injury and illness symptoms. The workers were employed at seven car washes. Five of the locations are job sites in which workers had recently organized to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

The hazards reported by the workers didn’t surprise me: cleaning chemicals and musculoskeletal stressors. But other findings were super interesting to me, including characteristics of the car wash workforce in New York City as reflected by the respondents:

  • Nearly one-half of the 70 workers had been employed more than 5 years in the car wash industry
  • Nearly one-half reported working 6 days per week and on average 10 hours per day
  • 66 of the 70 workers were born outside of the U.S.

As far as safety conditions, 93 percent of the car wash workers said they had not received any safety training in the last 12 months from their current employer.

About half of the workers reported that their employer provided gloves, but frequently they were latex-coated gloves that did not extend over the wrist.  As the authors note, these kind of gloves doesn’t cover enough of the arms and the material is not adequate to prevent skin absorption of the detergents and other cleaning chemicals. The authors also observed:

“Many workers supplied their own gloves, contributing to the nearly three-quarters of participants who reported wearing gloves when needed for at least 50 percent of their work time.”

The car wash workers also described symptoms that they associate with exposures at work. The most common symptoms were shortness of breath, back pain, neck or shoulder pain, other joint pain and eye irritation/burning. That’s no surprise, but important to document as the authors have done. They sum up the working conditions this way:

“Car washes are urban assembly lines that employ toxic chemicals handled by untrained and unprotected immigrant workers who perform highly repetitive movements to produce clean vehicles,” the authors write.

“The largely Latino male work force is stable and hard-working—frequently working 60 hours per week, which reflects in part low wages and the workers’ lack of alternative employment options.

…Their high prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms reflect the strenuous ergonomic challenges experienced by this worker population, such as spending long hours standing, twisting their trunks, and moving their extremities repeatedly in highly stereotypic movements.”

There are an estimated 160,000 car wash workers in the U.S., according to the authors, including about 2,700 in New York City.

Kudos to the students at the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment at the City University of New York and the RWDSU staff for bringing attention to those who earn their living working at a car wash. Their research is published in the February issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

One thought on “Working at the car wash… long hours on an urban assembly line

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