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The hidden dangers of working in a nail salon

Photo by Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Alhambra , CA United States

Many of us may think of worker safety issues as a relic of the soot-filled factories of the early 1800s or as a hazard of especially dangerous occupations like mining. But almost four hundred California workers died on the job in 2016, according to a recent report by Worksafe. The majority of these were Asian, Latinx and black.

Although slower to take effect, and sometimes hidden, the negative health and safety risks in the nail salon industry are no less significant. There haven’t been many studies yet on nail salon workers in the San Gabriel Valley, but a Yelp search for nail salons near Alhambra yields over 600 results.

The nail salon industry in California encompasses a complicated history. In 1975, Tippi Hedren, the actor who starred in Hitchcock’s The Birds organized a project to train Vietnamese refugee women in Sacramento as nail salon stylists to help them build their own businesses.

Forty-one years later, the California nail salon business puts food on the table for California families, but nail salons can be dangerous places to work. Nail salon workers are exposed to chemicals in polishes, removers, emollients and other products, which may cause asthma, skin disorders, liver disease, reproductive loss and cancer. Nail salon workers can also face muscle strains from awkward working positions and repetitive motions.

When Julie* started working in a nail salon in Los Angeles, she felt as if she were going to throw up every day from the chemical smells. Now, she’s used to it but still fears the effects of the chemicals on herself, and especially on her children. “I feel like there should be a healthier environment to work in but I can’t find [it],” she says.

In another Los Angeles nail salon, the windows and doors were kept shut, and the fumes were so potent that one worker fainted, said Lisa Fu, program and outreach director at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. But the worker’s fear of being fired was so strong that she refused either to let the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative come in to do a safety training or to file a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “There’s huge fear of retaliation in the industry,” Fu said. “We’re still trying to work with folks to speak up about what they deserve.”

In addition to fears about retaliation, the fear among community members has gotten worse. “There’s an overall sense of anxiety and fear in community, fear that ICE raids will expand to the Asian community,” Fu said. “There’s a large percentage of undocumented folks from Asian countries; we can’t ignore that.”

In addition to health and safety issues, nail salon workers also face workers’ rights issues such as being misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees, being denied meal and rest breaks and being underpaid, among other issues. One worker that Fu works with has no idea how much she receives in tips or whether she’s getting the correct commission because her boss handles all the transaction, keeps no payment records, and pays her purely in cash.

There are some signs of change in the industry. According to Fu, some manufacturers have begun to reformulate products over the last ten years because of consumer demand for healthier products. And a recent California Supreme court decision, Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, mandates a more worker-friendly test for determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. In addition, some cities, such as Santa Monica, have passed Healthy Nail Salon Programs, requiring certain safety equipment and training at nail salons in their jurisdictions. But there’s still a long way to go to transform the industry into one that is truly safe.

We would love to hear from San Gabriel Valley nail salon workers about their experiences and can keep you anonymous. Please email the author at hoffk2014@lawnet.ucla.edu or the editor Phoenix Tso at phoenix@alhambrasource.org.

*Worker’s name changed to protect her identity

Updated July 3, 2018 at 5:05 p.m. to reflect that 400 California workers in general died in 2016 on the job, not specifically nail salon workers.

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