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March 31, 2014
OSHA forms alliance to protect beauty industry workers
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

On March 27, OSHA announced an alliance with Concerned Beauty Professionals in Atlanta to protect workers in the beauty industry from exposure to hazardous chemicals.

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The alliance will provide hair salon owners and workers with information, guidance, and training on protecting workers from exposure to products that contain hazardous chemicals, such as formaldehyde.

“OSHA and other federal, state, and non-U.S. government agencies have taken action to address the emerging problem of formaldehyde exposure to hair smoothing products,” said Teresa Harrison, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Atlanta. “This alliance demonstrates OSHA’s commitment to the safety and health of workers in this industry.”

OSHA has found formaldehyde in the air in salons where hair smoothing products were used, in some cases at levels greater than OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the chemical. Exposure to formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and nose; cause allergic reactions affecting the skin, eyes, and lungs; and is linked to nose and lung cancer. Primary routes of exposure for formaldehyde include inhalation, skin contact, and contact with the eyes or mouth.

One of OSHA’s concerns in beauty salons is that some hair smoothing products may be mislabeled and may contain formaldehyde even if it is not listed on the product label. Other products can release formaldehyde when heated, such as during blow-drying or flat-ironing. OSHA investigators tested and found formaldehyde in several products that were labeled “formaldehyde free.”

In 2011, OSHA measured unsafe levels of formaldehyde at three salons and cited the salon owners for exposing workers to formaldehyde. The agency also cited manufacturers and distributors of the incorrectly labeled formaldehyde-containing products. In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, OSHA issued citations to 40 salons, including beauty schools, and 9 distributors or manufacturers for violations relating to formaldehyde labeling and exposure.

Protecting workers from formaldehyde

Hair salons that use products containing formaldehyde must follow OSHA’s hazard communication standard to protect workers. This includes ensuring that products are properly labeled, keeping safety data sheets (SDSs) for the products in areas accessible to workers, and training workers to protect themselves and minimize exposure.

Formaldehyde is also subject to substance-specific requirements (29 CFR 1910.1048). Where workers are exposed at levels at or above an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) of 0.5 parts per million (ppm), employers must implement medical surveillance programs for exposed employees and periodically test the air for formaldehyde concentrations, in addition to other requirements.

Employers must also ensure that workers are not exposed above the PEL of an 8-hour TWA of 0.75 ppm or the short-term exposure limit (STEL) of 2 ppm, which is the maximum exposure allowed in a 15-minute period. In one cited hair salon, OSHA found workers exposed to formaldehyde levels more than five times the STEL.

If formaldehyde levels exceed the PEL or the STEL, employers must:

  • Install and maintain ventilation systems where the products are mixed and used;
  • Use work practices that may reduce exposures, such as requiring the use of lower heat setting on blow dryers;
  • Ensure workers are using appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, goggles, face shields, and chemical-resistant aprons;
  • Provide workers with respirators and train them in proper respirator use if other measures do not sufficiently reduce formaldehyde exposures;
  • Post signs warning workers that formaldehyde is present above OSHA limits and restrict access to authorized personnel; and
  • Keep records of air tests and their results, any medical needed by exposed employees, and respirator fit-testing.


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