Nail Salon Workers Toil in Toxic Conditions

Health Letter, September 2016

By Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H.

In May 2015,The New York Timespublished the first part of a two-part exposé of the nail salon industry by Sarah Maslin Nir.[1] Based on interviews conducted with more than 100 mostly Asian and Hispanic nail salon workers, the story vividly described the day-to-day lives of these workers, forced by circumstance to cater to Manhattanites and other affluent customers.

The article described how the city’s nail salon workers put in grueling 10- to 12-hour shifts and 66-hour weeks, returning home to “fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Wages are reportedly as low as $1.50 per hour and $10 per day, with only a quarter of workers paid at New York state’s minimum wage, and most workers report illegal withholding of wages.

In a second piece, Nir described the myriad health risks of working in a nail salon, including exposure to toxic chemicals linked to numerous serious health effects.[2] The exposé’s publication was the first time many readers became aware of the stark realities faced by the 375,000 nail salon workers across the U.S.,[3] almost all of whom are women and two-thirds of whom are minorities.[4]

In the year following the publication of these two articles, the state of New York enacted two laws intended to protect nail salon workers from toxins. Yet for many workers, the new laws do not go far enough. And the federal government has yet to follow suit with any similar regulations to protect workers in other states.

Toxins abound

Nail salon workers are potentially exposed to dozens of hazardous chemicals[5] through the glues, polishes, removers and other products they use on a daily basis.[6] These chemicals may lead to asthma, other respiratory diseases, skin disorders, liver disease, birth defects and even cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency tasked with regulating the cosmetic products that contain these chemicals. However, the FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetics before they go on the market[7] and is therefore forced to rely on cosmetic manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe before being marketed.[8] The FDA has the authority to ban or restrict the use of a cosmetic once it is on the market if the agency has “reliable information” showing that it is mislabeled or unsafe for use as labeled.[9]

One of these chemicals, formaldehyde, gained notoriety a few years ago when it was found in a line of hair smoothing products (which are used in salons that provide both nail and hair services) known as Brazilian Blowout, among other names. In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a hazard alert notifying the public that, although formaldehyde was not listed among the products’ ingredients, the agency had found high levels of formaldehyde in the air in salons using the products.[10] OSHA’s monitoring was spurred by an investigation by Oregon’s state OSHA agency into a worker’s complaint of nosebleeds, eye irritation and trouble breathing when using a Brazilian Blowout product labeled “formaldehyde-free.” The Oregon agency later found formaldehyde in the product.

In 2014, Women’s Voices for the Earth, an environmental health advocacy group,[11] published a comprehensive review of the various hazards to salon workers.[12] The report compiled a list of the hazardous chemicals used in nail salon products and cited studies showing that workers applying acrylic nails had decreased lung function and increased airway inflammation, with longer hours and tenure associated with worse outcomes. Many of the respiratory symptoms in both nail and hair salon workers seemed to be present largely at work and subsided during vacations or other days away from the salon.

New York responds, but much more needs to be done

In June 2015, partly in response to the furor generated by Nir’sNew York Times exposés, the New York state government issued a regulation requiring all nail salons to provide access to equipment — a respirator, gloves and eye protection — to protect their workers from chemical exposure.[13]

In July 2016, the state government issued another regulation, requiring salons to install ventilation systems to reduce the airborne concentration and inhalation of chemicals.[14] Washington, Oregon and Massachusetts had already passed similar laws.[15]

The new laws were a good first step toward reducing workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals in salons. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has concluded that an efficient ventilation system could reduce exposure by at least 50 to 60 percent.[16] However, existing nail salons do not have to comply with the 2016 ventilation law until 2021.[17] In addition, the law did not specify the level to which the concentrations of the various chemicals would need to be reduced.

Another persistent hazard to nail salon workers’ health remains unaddressed by either law. Salon employees work continuously for 10 hours or longer each day, performing the same hand and arm motions over and over again, which can lead to disabling musculoskeletal injuries. According to OSHA, “[l]eaning over a work table for a long time; repetitive movements like filing and buffing nails; and resting hands, wrists, and forearms and/or elbows against hard surfaces or sharp edges of work tables are common causes of injury to workers’ muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and nerves.”[18]

Despite these limitations, New York’s laws will hopefully serve as models for a federal standard that would offer at least some protection to nail salon workers in other states. But OSHA has yet to pursue such a standard, and, given the snail’s pace at which the agency has moved in issuing new health and safety rules over the past two decades,[19] hopes are slim that such a rule is forthcoming anytime soon. So far, OSHA has released only educational guides, instructing workers on measures they can take to minimize their exposure to chemicals and risk of musculoskeletal injury.[20]

OSHA has the authority to inspect and cite nail salons that expose workers to levels of toxins that exceed its allowable limits, and pressure needs to be exerted on the agency to use this authority. In the meantime, citizens are acting to protect nail salon workers in other ways. Women’s Voices for the Earth informs readers about the various campaigns underway to ban certain cosmetics used in nail salons,[21] while worker advocates in California are working to protect nail salon workers in that state.[22] These and other campaigns offer hope that the underclass of nail salon workers will not be forgotten anytime soon.


References

[1] Nir SM. The price of nice nails.New York Times. May 7, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/nyregion/at-nail-salons-in-nyc-manicurists-are-underpaid-and-unprotected.html. Accessed June 29, 2016.

[2] Nir SM. Perfect nails, poisoned workers.New York Times. May 8, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/nyregion/nail-salon-workers-in-nyc-face-hazardous-chemicals.html. Accessed June 29, 2016.

[3] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Health hazards in nail salons.https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/nailsalons/index.html. Accessed July 26, 2016.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nail technicians’ health and workplace exposure control.http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/manicure/. Accessed July 26, 2016.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. An evaluation of local exhaust ventilation systems for controlling hazardous exposures in nail salons. September 2012.http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/surveyreports/pdfs/005-164.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2016.

[6] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Stay healthy and safe while giving manicures and pedicures: A guide for nail salon workers.https://www.osha.gov/Publications/3542nail-salon-workers-guide.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[7] Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetics Q&A: Why are cosmetics not FDA-approved?http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm135709.htm. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[8] Food and Drug Administration. Are cosmetics approved by FDA?http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm194552.htm. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[9] Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetics Q&A: Why are cosmetics not FDA-approved?http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm135709.htm. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[10] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Hair smoothing products that could release formaldehyde.https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/formaldehyde/hazard_alert.html. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[11]Women’s Voices for the Earth. Mission + Vision.http://www.womensvoices.org/about/mission-and-vision/. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[12] Women’s Voices for the Earth. Beauty and its beast. November 2014.http://www.womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Beauty-and-Its-Beast.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[13] New York State. Information for nail salon workers. New safety requirements.https://www.ny.gov/nail-salon-safety-what-you-need-know/information-nail-salon-workers. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[14] Nir SM. Ventilation to be required in all New York nail salons.New York Times. July 21, 2016.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/nyregion/ventilation-to-be-required-in-all-new-york-nail-salons.html?_r=1. Accessed July 22, 2016.

[15] New York State. Revised rulemaking: Facility requirements for businesses which offer appearance enhancement services. I.D. No. DOS-22-15-00017-RP.http://docs.dos.ny.gov/info/register/2016/june22/pdf/rulemaking.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[16] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. An Evaluation of Local Exhaust Ventilation Systems for Controlling Hazardous Exposures in Nail Salons. September 2012.https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/surveyreports/pdfs/005-164.pdf. Accessed August 16, 2016.

[17] New York State. Revised rulemaking: Facility requirements for businesses which offer appearance enhancement services. I.D. No. DOS-22-15-00017-RP.http://docs.dos.ny.gov/info/register/2016/june22/pdf/rulemaking.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[18] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Health hazards in nail salons: Muscle and joint problems from awkward postures and repetitive motions.https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/nailsalons/musclestrains.html. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[19] Public Citizen. OSHA inaction. October 2011.https://dev.citizen.org/sites/default/files/osha-inaction.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2016.

[20] Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Health hazards in nail salons.https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/nailsalons/index.html. Accessed July 26, 2016.

[21] Women’s Voices for the Earth. Safe Salons.http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/. Accessed August 4, 2016.

[22] California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.http://www.cahealthynailsalons.org/what-is-hns/about-healthy-nail-salons/. Accessed August 4, 2016.