“They Cannot Breathe:” Poisoned Workers in Nail Salons

The grim story of deregulation in the US economy has another victim: nail salon workers. A New York Times expose has won tremendous attention to their plight in an industry that has long resisted regulation:

Some states and municipalities recommend workers wear gloves and other protection, but salon owners usually discourage them from donning such unsightly gear. And 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. So manicurists continue to paint fingertips, swipe off polish and file down false nails, while absorbing chemicals that are potentially hazardous to their health. . . .

In interviews with over 125 nail salon workers, airway ailments . . . were ubiquitous. Many have learned to simply laugh them off — the nose that constantly bleeds, the throat that has ached every day since the manicurist started working.

For those interested in the legal background, I highly recommend a piece by my former student, Kelsey-Anne Fung. In 2014, she concluded:

Southeast and East Asian immigrant nail salon workers face disproportionate exposure levels to dangerous and carcinogenic nail products, and as a result, suffer severe health outcomes at unusually high rates. Without FDA authority of pre-market approval, testing, or recall, the cosmetic industry is wholly self–regulated, resulting in scarce protections to consumers and professions who use nail products on a daily basis. Salon owners often pay below minimum wage, do not provide health insurance or any benefits, and fail to supply adequate safety equipment. Consequently, workers must rely on community safety net clinics and public hospitals for medical care to treat ailments from working in the nail salon, paying steep out–of–pocket rates. On its own, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not remedy any of the health policy issues facing immigrant nail salon workers. Thus, [state-level interventions] may be the only viable solution to securing preventative and affordable health care services for this overburdened and vulnerable labor force.

Both Fung’s article, and the NYT piece, are must-reads for anyone concerned about the fate of workers in an increasingly deregulated environment.

 

 

 

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