Before customers arrive, Calvin Duong lights incense every morning in the shrine — containing a Buddha, grapefruit, tea, and flowers — set up in the corner of his nail salon to bring good luck.
Duong, who opened Top Line Nails on Chestnut Street in Needham more than 18 years ago, when there were only two others in town, is receptive to new business practices as well. He is among the salon owners working with local health officials to make the workplace safer for staff — which at Top Line includes his wife and cousin — and customers.
“Why not?” he said in an interview at his salon. “I am trying to make customers happy and more healthy.”
The safety campaign involves health officials in Canton, Dedham, Milton, Norwood, Wellesley, and Westwood as well as Needham. The seven towns are members of the Norfolk County 7 Medical Reserve Corps, a community partnership focused primarily on emergency preparedness but which recently received a $20,000 grant as part of a national campaign, “Clearing the Air: Empowering Nail Salon Owners and Workers for Better Health.”
The grant, awarded by the National Association of County and City Health Officials in partnership with the US surgeon general’s office, aims to help communities develop programs that can be replicated elsewhere.
“It’s such a big issue that no one knows about,” said Vivian Zeng, a recent Brandeis University graduate who has been hired with the grant as an outreach worker.
The estimated 375,000 nail technicians working in salons across the country face such health hazards as exposure to toxic chemicals in 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 message is simple: We just hope they will take some steps to improve the health of workers and customers,” said Janice Berns, Needham’s director of public health.
Zeng will visit salons in the seven communities and provide information on simple ways they can improve conditions for workers and, to some degree, their customers.
Zeng, who participated in a Brandeis program that researched the problem in Boston, said she has gone to all of Norwood’s nail salons and has begun visiting Needham establishments, some of which have already been working with Berns.
Needham has 18 of the estimated 100 salons in the seven communities, Berns said.
Zeng said she has had to be persistent, since some 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 have even been the person talking to her.
One of the barriers that health officials face is 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 contributor said Vietnamese nail technicians rarely speak out, keeping worries to themselves.
Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation for the number of Vietnamese nail technicians working in its salons, according to Nails magazine.
Actress and model Tippi Hedren, who is known in part for her role 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, after Hedren’s nails were admired during a visit to a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sacramento, she helped refugees get training in the nail business.
Duong said he, his wife, and their young son came to Massachusetts from California, where he lived after the Vietnam War, because he wanted to start a nail salon business and there was less competition here at the time. His options were limited by the loss of part of one arm during the war.
Today, he and his wife, Chi, run Top Line Nails. Asked whether she ever has any health concerns related to the work, Chi Duong said, “I’m OK,” and “I love this job.”
Zeng, who said many of the salons in Boston that she studied are owned by Vietnamese, said she was surprised at how little information was getting to salon workers.
The first step is trying to get workers and owners to adopt simple ways to make their environments safer, Zeng said. These include opening doors and windows when the weather allows, to improve ventilation; keeping products capped when not in use, to keep vapors from getting into the air; and not eating at their work stations.
Eventually, nail salons could follow the example of places such as Forever-French in Norwood, which uses a “source capture” ventilation system in which a flexible, robot-like arm sucks in fumes and dust generating by the nail treatments.
Zeng recalled her first day on the job, when she was initially discouraged at the lack of interest but became reinspired by an owner who did want 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.”
Berns said she hopes that Zeng will be able to provide a PowerPoint presentation and information, in various languages, to owners and workers at a time when there are no customers in the salon.
Katherine Kokko, of BME Strategies, a public health consulting firm, is the grant coordinator for the project. Kokko said there are no clear and easy answers.
Kokko said she has looked at efforts 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, for example, 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.”
But some new ideas are gaining ground.
As Duong, Berns, and Zeng talked about safety efforts, Carole Kessel of Newton, a longtime customer, walked in. She had to cancel an appointment the day before, but now was rushing to get all of her errands done before an expected snowstorm and a trip to New York for a trade show.
Kessel said she needs to have good-looking nails for professional reasons, and no one can do them as well as Top Line.
As Chi Duong began filing with a drill before gluing on acrylic nails, Berns suggested that she put on her mask, and she did.
“It’s taking small steps to making a few changes,” Berns said.Jean Lang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.