If you follow workplace safety news, you likely noticed recent headlines surrounding concerns about the safety of workers in New York City nail salons. In case you missed them, they read a little something like this: “The Price of Nice Nails” (New York Times), “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” (New York Times), “Nail Salons Under Scrutiny in Wake of New York Times Investigation” (KOED News), “Something Rotten in New York City Nail Salons” (Times Insider), “The New York Times just exposed the shady underbelly of the manicure industry” (Business Insider), and they go on and on.
The uproar began with a two-part report published by the New York Times in early May that ended up creating major waves in the beauty and safety industries—the ripple effects of which are still being felt today. In this article, we’ll recap what was uncovered in the investigative report—with a focus on workplace injury and illness, highlight ongoing efforts to protect salon workers, and share some key takeaways that can—and should—apply to every industry where workers face potentially unsafe or hazardous conditions every day.
The New York Times report, which was written after 13 months of journalistic investigation, exposed the dark side to nail salons, including the pervasiveness of exploited and unprotected workers. The report’s author, Sarah Maslin Nir, interviewed 125 manicurists in the New York area with the help of several translators. In addition to concerns about workplace safety, three major issues emerged in her investigation: impossibly low wages, frighteningly long hours, and stark racism.
Although all these issues are critical and must be addressed, it was the safety concerns that caught our attention. The second piece in the two-part report focused on the chemical hazards to which salon workers are exposed to constantly in their 10 to 12-hour shifts.
As shared in the article, “A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful…and serious health problems.” The article goes on to state that “Some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.”
Although some states recommend that manicurists and other salon workers wear gloves or masks for protection, it’s not required. And salon owners often discourage employees from doing so, as the gear may be seen as off-putting to potential customers. The report states that “even though officials overseeing workplace safety concede that federal standards on levels of chemicals that these workers can be exposed to need revision, nothing has been done.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the chemical exposure limits for workplaces. Although, the existing studies on chemical exposure for salon workers found levels well beneath standards, many believe those studies are out of date or just wrong. As quoted in the article, David Michaels, the assistant labor secretary who heads OSHA, admitted the current protection for these workers needs to be revisited and updated. “Currently, he said, workers ‘can be exposed to levels that are legal according to OSHA but are still dangerous.’”
Information specifically for manicurists and salon workers can be found on OSHA’s resource page online. The section under Safety and Health Topics is called “Heath Hazards in Nail Salons” and includes sub-sections on Chemical Hazards, Awkward Positions and Repetitive Motions, Biological Hazards, Assistance for Workers and Employers, and Standards.
This section of the site states that “more than 375,000 nail technicians working in salons across the United States face potential hazards every day.” OSHA recognizes that the chemicals in nail glues, polishes, polish removers, and emollients can cause respiratory illnesses, skin disorders, liver disease, reproductive loss, and cancer.
In addition to providing collateral on preventing illness and injury at nail salons—which is available in five languages—there is more work to be done in protecting this particularly vulnerable workforce. Based on the response to Times article, we expect to start seeing changes of that nature happening in the near future.
No matter what your industry is or what hazards your workforce faces each day, there are some key lessons from this scandal that all safety professionals can all benefit from learning.
Vulnerable workers need protection too. A major contributing factor to the poor standards and regulation in the nail salon industry is the fact that majority of workers don’t speak English as their first language—some hardly at all. Plus, many salon employees are immigrants working illegally. These individuals are particularly unlikely to know their rights—from minimum wage to workplace safety—much less, to actually speak up when those rights are being violated.
In response to the backlash from the Times article, the governor of New York launched an awareness campaign to help protect salon workers. Now a Workers’ Bill of Rights poster must be displayed prominently in all New York salons. Underneath the words, “These are your rights regardless of immigration status,” is an explanation that salon owners are legally obligated to take measures to protect their workers’ health, like providing face masks and gloves.
Do more than the minimum. This is a business trend that extends beyond the realm of safety, but most certainly applies to it. Just as major corporations are being pushed to pay employees more than the minimum wage, so are businesses being told they should be going above and beyond OSHA standards to protect employees from workplace illness and injuries. More than ever before, corporations and businesses are expected to act in a socially responsible manner—and that includes doing more for employee safety than simply doing what is required.
In California, a grass roots program has begun to create healthier nail salons that use greener products while also providing better worker protection from chemicals and improved ventilation systems. This sort of program will not only attract green-minded patrons, but it will also ensure workers’ are as safe as possible.
Train your workforce to protect itself. We can all agree that everyone deserves the right to safe workplace—and no one should work in an environment that breeds illness over time. That being said, when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable employees, we’re still missing the mark.
Ultimately, a lack of knowledge and training may be the largest hurdle to overcome in order to ensure the safety of vulnerable workers such as illegal immigrants, temporary workers, and non-English speaking employees. Our role as safety professionals is to make sure all employees know their rights, know what types of personal protective equipment are available to them, and are properly trained to perform tasks in ways that are the safest and least harmful.
By prioritizing profits over employee safety and health, nail salons across the country have caused countless illnesses and injuries to their workers over the years. Thanks to exposure from the New York Times report, a complete overhaul of how the industry operates could be on the horizon.
As safety professionals, we must be vigilant about protecting all of our workers. And we must pay particular attention to those workers who are the most vulnerable—and often faced with the greatest risks.