By Cameryn Cass
A recent study revealed unsafe working conditions in some Michigan nail salons, the consequence of working with hazardous chemicals and not knowing how to handle them properly.
Alarmingly, “study participants reported experiencing health issues they did not have prior to working as a technician,” according to research at the University of Michigan.
The study is based on interviews from 13 nail technicians and focus groups from the greater Ann Arbor area in Southeast Michigan. It did not name the communities where those salons are located.
Past studies have explored the health consequences of chemicals used in nail salons, connecting technician’s exposure to respiratory, endocrine and neurological degradation, potentially even cancer.
Many perils stem from unsafe chemicals and hazards. That’s why chemical exposures are the chief concern among harmful aspects of nail salon work, the study said.
Proper education and training could eliminate technicians’ stress from not understanding what the products are and how to properly handle them, it said.
On a daily basis, workers handle dangerous, sometimes carcinogenic, chemicals. Although linked to adverse health outcomes, those chemicals remain in use because they’re inexpensive, said the study.
Of chief concern was the monomer used to apply artificial nails.
One study participant said, “I had some of it on a paper towel and I accidentally put a phone on it and the paper towel melted into the phone.”
Workers also regularly use acetone and have observed it melt plastic.
How can they continue in use if they’re proven dangerous?
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), in charge of regulating chemicals in the workplace, is severely underfunded, said Aurora Le, a contributor to the study and a faculty member at the U-M School of Public Health.
“They just don’t have the person power to actually regulate,” Le said.
In fact, there are only about 2,000 OSHA employees, charged with monitoring the entire American workforce. Because of limited numbers, they primarily regulate higher-risk industries like oil and construction, Le said.
Nail salon owners can call OSHA for a consultation, and someone will come and provide free health and safety expertise, said professor Kenneth Rosenman, an occupational health expert at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
Even though the service is free, many employers don’t use it because they are concerned about the consequences since making changes cost money, said Rosenman. Some might not even know the service exists.
Therefore, Le said, it’s often left up to salon owners to incorporate safer products and practices into their work environments, but again, that’s something they might know little about.
And owners often have little time to monitor what’s going on and ensure safe protocols are followed, the study said.
Grassroots movements like the Michigan Healthy Nail Salon Cooperative try to reduce workplace hazards by targeting salon owners, educating them on safer practices for a safer work environment, Le said.
The cooperative addresses a variety of workplace problems, not just harmful chemicals.
They include psychological stressors salon workers face, largely brought on by a lack of standardized education nationwide, Le said.
In the U.S. there are a few hundred thousand nail salon workers. The exact number is hard to pinpoint because the majority — 80% — are immigrants. Among them, 80% are women and more than half are Vietnamese, according to the study.
Because most technicians are foreign-born, language barriers are a prominent problem in salons, it said.
Those barriers not only inhibit understanding of safety protocols, but they foster psychological turmoil and workplace stress, Le said.
Language barriers can be particularly troublesome when it comes to reviewing safety data sheets, which list in English all of the chemicals workers come into contact with, making it immensely challenging for a predominantly Vietnamese workforce to understand, she said.
Rosenman said U.S. employers must provide workers with safety data sheets. They can be especially helpful if workers develop a specific health problem, as it lets them trace it back to a certain chemical.
The cooperative is pushing to have safety data sheets available in more than one language.
Despite those concerns, the nail salon industry continues to expand, the study said.
It is easy for people who don’t speak English to become technicians, a major attraction for the predominantly immigrant workforce. However, Le said, they might be reluctant to speak up when work conditions become hazardous in fear of compromising their jobs.
Ideally, salons would partner with health officials and offer standardized, comprehensive and reoccurring education to mitigate workplace hazards, the study said.