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“Perfect nails, poisoned workers” and where is the law? [The Pump Handle]

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by Cora Roelofs, ScD

Kudos to Sarah Maslin Nir for shedding light on the working conditions faced by nail salon workers in her recent two-part New York Times exposé “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers.” I and others across the country have been working to document and illuminate the effects of the systematic failures that produce the unhealthful conditions faced by these workers and, many times, their employers as well. As described in our investigation of nail salon conditions in Boston, despite tremendous evidence of bad conditions and symptoms related to work in these conditions, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been saying, in effect, ‘there little we can do to make the workplace conditions better or to force employers to do so because it falls outside of the regulatory framework.’

What they mean is that there is no regulatory or enforcement mechanism for preventing exposures to mixed low level volatile chemicals, or exposures that result in irritation to eyes, throat and skin; reproductive or developmental effects; allergies; fungal infections, or musculoskeletal disorders. Additionally, OSHA officials could cite the numerous challenges in enforcing what standards might apply, such as the ambiguous employment status of nail salon workers, the paucity of inspectors generally, and especially those able to speak Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese or even Spanish. OSHA officials also could note that they can’t require that products are safe or that shops have ventilation.

OSHA’s response to these challenges is a booklet of information for these vulnerable and disempowered nail salon workers with the message: ‘here’s how to protect yourself.’ The OSHA law requires employers to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards. The law is clear that employers have the primary responsibility to ensure safe conditions for employees. Yet again and again, this law seems not to apply to the places where immigrants work, including nail salons.

So what to do? You can look to excellent outreach and local initiatives from Boston to King County, Washington, but these small scale and mostly voluntary programs, are no substitute for strong enforced national regulation. Not only is regulation is the engine of innovation, it is also the only way to eliminate sweatshops, and the way to permit employers to compete on a level playing field where they all have to comply instead of undercut each other with short cuts. In a context of enforced requirements, investment in one’s nail salon business would include not only new pedicure chairs, but putting money into an effective general ventilation system. It would also mean 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. There is no market for innovation in healthful conditions without uniformly enforced regulation. Some companies have developed new manicure tables that remove dusts and vapors, but they can’t sell these products in a market where safety is optional. Consumers will always look for the lowest price — it should be a price that includes paying for healthful conditions.

What else? Many will call for more research. Research is good — but as OSHA director David Michaels says in the New York Times article: there is adequate data already about the chemicals in use in salons to know they cause harm and shouldn’t be there. We don’t have to wait to count up more harmed bodies in order to take up the call for action. And, as for all the bureaucratic obstacles, if the appropriate agencies and policy makers can’t figure out how to fix the broken system, there is wealth of advocates and scientists available to help craft evidence-based and feasible interventions.

One of the most broken parts of the system is that which permits harmful chemicals in cosmetics and nail salons in the first place. What we need is significant revision of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act. We need a law that requires pre-market testing of products with a demonstration that substances are not harmful to workers or anyone in contact with them. We need a law that requires commercial products be fully labeled with their ingredients and where health concerns trump “trade secrets.” We need a law that eliminates the outrageous conflicts of interest embedded in the current “Cosmetics Ingredient Review” process and one that insulates decisions about product safety from the companies making those products. We need a law that supports the development of  truly “green” products. These initiatives and others are needed to put the law on the side of nail salon workers.

Cora Roelofs, ScD is an assistant professor in the Community Health Program at Tufts University.


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