Federal Agency Inaction amid Growing Concerns about Health and Safety of Nail Salon Workers

Katie Tracy

May 21, 2015

Whether you are a frequent visitor to your local nail salon, or just an occasional passer-by, you are likely familiar with the offending chemical stench that emanates from within.  You may have even considered whether the displeasing fumes are safe to breath, especially for the clinicians who work in the store every day.  This is exactly what New York Times reporter, Sarah Maslin Nir, explores in her recent exposé of the nail salon industry entitled, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers.” 

Nir explains that there is limited research on chemical exposure to nail salon workers, which makes it difficult to reach hard conclusions on the long-term or accumulated health effects.  Yet first-hand accounts of workers in the industry reveal that skin and eye irritation, breathing difficulty, and pregnancy complications are commonplace, and there is substantial data showing that the chemicals used by nail salon workers (like acetone, formaldehyde, and toluene to name a few) are hazardous, and are, in some cases, carcinogenic.  

So why is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doing so little to step in and protect nail salon workers from harm? 

OSHA has not set permissible exposure limits (PELs) for many chemicals, which complicates the agency’s job of issuing citations to employers who expose workers to these chemicals.  It is imperative that the agency strengthen existing PELs and develop new ones for chemicals commonly used by the nail salon industry.

As Celeste Monforton writes in her recent post for The Pump Handle, OSHA also needs to issue strong standards for salon owners that would mandate investing in an “effective general ventilation system” as well as “buying the off-the-shelf podiatrists shrouded/ventilated nail shaping tool to capture acrylic particles, designing ergonomic work stations, and adding new services that don’t include toxic chemicals.”

But given the achingly slow process of standards development at OSHA, the agency’s inspectors and lawyers need to make better use of the General Duty Clause to address chemical and musculoskeletal hazards in the workplace.

Even then, to ensure the health and safety of nail salon workers, OSHA would need to amplify the number of inspections it performs at these facilities and issue strong penalties when violations are found.  However, as explained in our recent report, Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA, congressional budget cuts, regulatory hurdles, and weak enforcement actions make it increasingly difficult for the agency to carry out its mission.  OSHA has also hesitated to address worker health and safety across the nail salon industry because of ambiguity as to whether nail salon workers are “employees” under the OSH Act. If these workers are considered to be “independent contractors,” they are not covered by the law, and thus, do not receive the health and safety protections afforded to “employees.”

The debilitated state of OSHA is outrageous.  A weak, outdated statute, redundant regulatory obstacles, and ongoing budgetary constraints make it practically impossible for the agency to take action despite clear health and safety risks to nail salon workers.  Yet until regulatory obstacles are cleared, and Congress modernizes the OSH Act and appropriates adequate resources to the agency, the health and safety of nail salon workers will be left to the states, individual manufacturers, business owners, and the workers themselves. 

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