I get my nails done in the name of beauty. I sit in a chair across from an immigrant Asian American woman, and we chat about work, family, and friends. Sometimes, I think about the dust mask she wears because it reminds me of my mother’s overprotective nature. “Audrey,” my mother always says to me, “wear a mask when you clean the house. Bad chemicals.” But I never wear a mask because I reason that it isn’t worth my time to go get a mask and put it on for some quick housecleaning. Then again, I’m not a nail salon worker.
Many nail salon workers are like the person I visit – low-income Asian American immigrant women trying to put food on the table with a job that requires limited English skills. Daily and for hours on end, nail salon technicians handle solvents, glues, polishes, and other chemical nail care products that are largely unregulated. They often work with little protective gear in small workspaces with poor ventilation. Unsurprisingly, their health is suffering. After all, these workers are consistently exposed to chemicals linked to cancer, allergies, endocrine disruption, dermatological problems, respiratory illnesses, and neurological and reproductive harm.
Workers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health for the beauty of others. That’s why the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is taking a hard look at how we can protect the health of nail salon workers. And it’s not just about health. It’s about worker safety and economic growth and civil rights. It’s a multi-faceted issue that requires a multi-agency approach.
Our interageny team is comprised of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Small Business Administration (SBA), and we’ve hit the ground running.
EPA is launching a “Train the Trainer” workshop series for nail salon workers. The workshops will teach nail salon owners and workers about health risks, safety measures, and greening techniques.
DHS is working on a smartphone that can “sniff” chemical levels in the air and collect health data from workers. This device has the potential to link chemical exposure to health symptoms in nail salons and provide much needed data to help inform agency standards and regulations.
SBA is assessing its programs to determine how to incentivize green nail salons and how to best assist nail salon owners with growing their businesses. Similarly, DOL and HHS are examining their outreach strategies and regulatory scope of the nail salon industry to see where they can help.
And this is only the one-year plan. Moving forward, we will continue to tackle the issue from all angles until nail salon technicians are thriving in safe, healthy workplaces.
It’s no secret that beauty often comes at a high price. We just want to make sure the people providing beauty aren’t the ones paying.
Audrey Buehring is the Senior Advisor on Intergovernmental Affairs for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.