Korean Immigrants Nailed by Chemical HazardsThroughout this country immigrant workers are doing hazardous work whose dangers go almost unnoticed. They don't generally belong to unions, and they will almost never see an OSHA inspector.
Luckilly for workers in some parts of the country, there are COSH groups and other health and safety activists who attempt to educate and help these workers.
This article deals with efforts by NYCOSH to address the hazards faced by Korean nail salon workers in New York who are exposed to a number of solvents that cause cancer, asthma, burns, serious allergic reactions, liver and kidney damage.
It began with a runny nose and red, irritated eyes, but then came the coughing. Before long, Soonok Kim was having trouble breathing.NYCOSH and the Young Korean American Service & Education Center will survey 100 of these workers to find out what they are exposed to and to try to prevent others from suffering health problems.
A doctor diagnosed her with severe asthma, which she believes was likely the product of more than a decade spent working at nail salons with little ventilation and lots of chemicals.
"My chest felt a lot of pain. My body felt weak," said Kim, 37, of Flushing, who worked as a nail technician for 11 years after immigrating to New York City from Seoul in the Republic of Korea in 1989.
"I felt like I'd be dead sooner or later," Kim said.
Evidence of illness has been mostly anecdotal, with workers relating symptoms such as asthma, skin rashes, burns and severe allergic reactions. Though the city's more modern salons have ventilation equipment and provide employees with face masks and gloves, Na said most salons remain packed into tiny, poorly ventilated spaces, providing little relief for workers.
Salon employees often work 10 hours a day with their heads bent inches away from a client's hands and feet, Kim described. Breaks come only when business is slow. Lunch is eaten next to trays of toxic nail polish removers and other chemicals.
"It's a workforce that no one pays attention to in an industry that's not really regulated," said Beverly Tillery of the Manhattan-based New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit coalition of unions, workers, physicians, and health and safety activists.