Investigative Report "Unvarnished" Spurs Health, Safety Improvements in New York Nail Salons

​By Kay Bechtold

Baltimore Convention Center, Inner Harbor Baltimore, Md. (May 24, 2016)—Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times recounted her 13-month investigation into the exploitation and health hazards faced by workers in New York City’s nail salon industry during the 16th Annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting today at AIHce 2016. Nir’s investigation “Unvarnished” was published last May in two parts, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” and “The Price of Nice Nails”, and sparked quick action in the state. Soon after her articles hit the streets, New York Governor Cuomo introduced a new state law to raise the health and safety standards in nail salons. Nir’s long months of work had paid off.

“You can’t do a story like this—and you can’t do a job like you do—partway,” she said, addressing a standing-room-only crowd of industrial hygiene and occupational and environmental health and safety professionals.

Nir met hundreds of nail salon workers over the course of her investigation, and she interviewed 125 of them to write her final pieces. She worked with a team of translators to pull together information from local newspapers and conduct interviews in four different languages. The workers, who are primarily immigrant women, told Nir their stories: “I’m not in pain, but my nose bleeds every single night,” “I’m not in pain, but when I went to do my fingerprinting for my citizenship it was disappointing to find I have no fingerprints left,” and “I like to see, so I went back to doing” a lower-paying job to avoid manicurist work sculpting acrylic nails. When women were trying to become pregnant, they would sit by the front door of the salon for the breeze because they “didn’t want a special child,” and miscarriages were a common thread in Nir’s conversations. Hearing comments like these lead Nir to delve further in her talks with these workers.

“As a journalist, not only do you learn information, you learn how to ask better questions,” Nir said. She began to ask the women more about their health and how they were feeling.

The most common health effects in nail salons include repetitive motion strain and skin, eye, and respiratory irritation. Many veteran manicurists sport scars on their forearms from resting them on a manicure table. At least one manicurist Nir spoke to had a persistent cough and was eventually diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, of the lung. The disease is thought to be caused by her exposure to acrylic powder.

“There’s a specter within the industry, a rumor among the women themselves that there’s something these chemicals do,” Nir said.

Some owners of New York City’s nail salons thought that masks might lead customers to think that manicurists were ill and previously didn’t allow workers to wear them. Other nail salon owners barred workers from wearing gloves because customers might not like how gloves felt against their skin. Under New York’s new safety requirements, salon owners must provide certain personal protective equipment, including a properly fitting, NIOSH-approved N-95 or N-100 respirators, for manicurists to use when buffing or filing nails, or when using acrylic powder. Salon owners must also post a new “Bill of Rights” (PDF) for nail workers in plain view. Owners who aren’t pleased with the changes are pushing back, saying that purchasing gloves and masks is “wildly expensive” and that “no studies show that these women have these illnesses,” Nir said.

The effects of Nir’s reporting are still being felt: earlier this month, Gov. Cuomo directed nail salons to repay $2 million in lost, unpaid wages to more than 600 workers, and many consumers have a new awareness about the occupational hazards of nail salons.

When asked why she thought her story gained so much traction, Nir told attendees it’s because the workers affected by the hazards in nail salons are right in front of readers.

“This particular industry is very intimate—you’re holding hands, looking in their eyes,” she said. That intimacy makes it easier to remember that “there’s no such thing as a cheap luxury; there’s someone bearing the cost of your discount.”

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.