A salon worker chatted about her daughter’s gymnastics to a customer who travels from Brookline to Norwood to have her nails done every three weeks. Another asked her client about her weekend plans.
It was an ageless scene in cosmetology, except that electric filing drills at the Forever-French salon had replaced emery boards, and a large machine next to the technicians was sucking in wafts of vapors and dust just inches away from the customers’ hands.
One employee donned safety glasses and a hospital-like mask, appearing more dental hygienist than a manicurist.
The futuristic machine, with its robotlike flexible arms, is a “source capture” ventilation system, bought with part of a grant intended to help salons become safer places, particularly for their workers.
The safety campaign began in Norwood salons, and will be expanded to Canton, Dedham, Milton, Needham, Wellesley, and Westwood, which constitute the Norfolk County 7 Medical Reserve Corps, a community partnership primarily focused on emergency preparedness.
“It’s such a big issue that no one knows about,” said Vivian Zeng, a recent Brandeis University graduate who has been visiting salons as part of this effort.
The estimated 375,000 nail technicians working in salons across the country face health hazards such as exposure to chemicals from glues, polishes, removers, and other salon products; muscle strain from awkward positions or repetitive motions; and risk of infections from contact with clients’ skin, nails, or blood, according to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Our main goal is the health and occupational safety of the workers,’’ said Norwood’s health director, Sigalle Reiss. “We don’t have regulations; there’s no great way to fix it right away.’’
But improving conditions is the goal of an initiative titled Clearing the Air: Empowering Nail Salon Owners and Workers for Better Health.
A $20,000 grant, awarded by the National Association of County and City Health Officials in partnership with the Office of the Surgeon General, aims to help communities develop programs that can be replicated elsewhere.
The money will help pay for Zeng, the outreach worker, to visit salons in all the communities and provide information on simple ways they can improve conditions for workers, and to some degree, those who visit them.
Zeng, who participated in a school program that researched the problem, said she has visited all of Norwood’s nail salons. According to Reiss, Norwood has 20 of an estimated 100 salons in the seven communities.
Zeng said she has had to be persistent, since some nail salon owners feared that she was an enforcement agent or dismissed her as a student doing a school project.
The response in some salons was to refer her to an absent owner, though she often suspected the owner was there and might even have been the person talking to her.
One of the barriers that health officials in Norwood and elsewhere face is one of language and cultural. An estimated 40 percent of the salons nationwide are Vietnamese-owned, according to Nails Magazine and its sister publication VietSALON. In a Viet Voice blog in the magazine, a blogger said Vietnamese nail technicians rarely speak up, keeping worries to themselves.
The writer referred to a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/VietSALON) designed to bring the Vietnamese voices into the wider nail salon networking community.
Massachusetts has the seventh-highest number of Vietnamese-owned nail salons, trailing California, Texas, Washington, Florida, Virginia, and Georgia, according to the VietSALON website. Actress and former model Tippi Hedren, who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” is believed to have given rise to the Vietnamese nail salon movement in the 1970s. According to Nails Magazine, Hedren’s nails were admired when she visited a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sacramento, which prompted her to help refugees receive training in the nail business.
Zeng, who did research in Boston salons, many of them owned by people from Vietnam, said she was surprised at how little information was getting to nail salon workers.
She said she tries to get salon workers and owners to first adopt simple ways to make their environments safer. These include opening doors and windows when the weather allows to improve ventilation; keeping products capped when not in use to keep the vapors from getting into the air; and not eating at their work stations.
Zeng recalled her first day, when she was initially discouraged by the lack of interest, but was reinspired by the end of the day by an owner who wanted to hear about how to keep her workers safer.
“There are definitely some that are interested in the program,” Zeng said. “I respected that a lot.”
Katherine Kokko, of BME Strategies, a public health consulting firm, is the grant coordinator for the project. Kokko, like Reiss, said there are no clear and easy answers.
Kokko said she has looked at efforts made in San Francisco and King County in Washington state, but regulations vary from state to state and it can be difficult to determine and introduce safe and affordable practices. Wearing gloves and masks can be considered a turnoff or uncomfortable, she said, and some alternative products may take more time to remove polish or to dry.
“Their entire business relies on a fast turnover time,” she said, adding that if an alternative slows down business, it will not be adopted. “It’s very hard to find the right answer.”
Kokko hopes the grant will initially foster trust between Zeng and salon owners, leading to simple changes before more complex ones can be adopted.
One of the salon owners that has been working with officials to make her own and other salons safer is Kerry Webber-Scalzo, owner of Forever-French in Norwood and Franklin.
Webber-Scalzo uses the Healthy Air source capture machine and is licensed to sell them to others.
“It’s definitely cut down on the dust,” said Kellie Deaganzio, a nail technician at Forever-French. She said she is no longer covered from head to toe with the dust at the end of the day.
The dust and odors often come from the drill filing and gluing of the nails, which are often a gel or long-lasting acrylic, and are considered more harmful if inhaled than regular nail polish.
Webber-Scalzo also manufactures and sells some of her salon products, which are made without methyl methacrylate, a substance that has been banned but still can be found in some discount-brand salon products, she said.
Adrienne Wilson, who travels from Brookline with the aid of a cane and someone to drive her, said she prefers Forever-French because her nails last longer with the acrylic and it is better for her allergy. She said she used to break out in a rash and would have to take pills to counteract the effects of having her nails done.
Webber-Scalzo said some people have become allergic to nail products from overexposure and are not aware of what is in the products.
Reiss said there are even some safer alternative products for people doing their nails at home, but some of them are only moderately safer.
“I don’t want to shut down all the salons in town,’’ she said. “We want to work with the salons and make sure they can attain any requirements we would have.’’Jean Lang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.