Most people would not expect working in a salon to come with health risks beyond burning oneself on a curling iron. However, many salon products contain formaldehyde, which has been shown to be associated with the development of health problems, including respiratory illness. One salon worker discovered this the hard way and was subsequently fired for trying to educate her fellow workers, according to WorkersCompensation.com.
Trying to Educate Her Colleagues
At Salon Zoë in New York City, a receptionist began to experience medical problems. After seeing a doctor several times, she became convinced that her problems were due to being exposed to formaldehyde in certain products in the salon. This assumption was later confirmed by medical tests. After learning about the dangers of formaldehyde, she chose to share the dangers with her fellow employees by passing out an OSHA fact sheet. Then, she found herself fired two days later.
Believing she was unjustly fired and discriminated against for simply trying to educate others about the hazards, she submitted a complaint to OSHA, which found her complaint to be reasonable. Subsequently, the US Department of Labor sued her employer on her behalf, not only to prevent this from happening again, but to ensure a safe environment for the employees of the salon. The suit also included compensation for the receptionist.
The Dangers of Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a substance already covered under the OSHA guidelines for hazardous chemicals. Several states protect workers from exposure to the material by implementing exposure limits and other guidelines. According to the OSHA Formaldehyde standard (29 CFR 1910.1048), the exposure limit is 0.75 parts per million over an 8 hour work day, or 2 parts per million over 15 minutes. Although most people associate formaldehyde with mortuaries or science labs, it is also found in various chemical products, glues, plywood, and household products. Therefore, it poses a risk in a variety of environments, including salons.
In fact, OSHA has found that certain hair smoothing products actually contain formaldehyde and release it in amounts higher than the permissible limits. To increase the danger, these products may be mislabeled.
The Rights of Workers
Workers have the right to a healthy and safe work environment under laws covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
Additionally, employees are protected if they inform other employees and/or the government about potentially hazardous working conditions. Employees who share information to government agencies about dangerous conditions are covered under the whistle-blower provisions found in the act. These protections mean that employers cannot retaliate against anyone who raises concerns either to the employers, fellow employees, or the government. If employers unjustly retaliate against these employees, they can face penalties.
The Role of the Employer
It is the role of the employer to provide a safe and healthy environment for workers, and to fully explain any potential health hazards to all employees. To abide by the OSHA regulations on formaldehyde exposure, an employer must increase hygiene monitoring and medical surveillance of the employees after finding 0.5 parts per million during an 8 hour workday. It is also up to the employer to educate and train all workers every year about the risks of exposure and provide protective equipment. In the case of Salon Zoë, the employer did not provide any such information — and tried to stop a worker who wanted to protect her fellow workers — and subsequently faced penalties for doing so.
Salon workers, whether hairstylists, manicurists, receptionists, managers, or any other employee should be aware of the dangers they face in their working environment. Not all salons utilize products containing formaldehyde. If you are unsure of your exposure risk, you should start by talking with the salon owner or manager to discuss products that may have formaldehyde or other potentially dangerous chemicals.