"Lose the nails or lose your job,” is what some companies tell their employees. Is it a justifiable restriction or are these companies staging nail witch-hunt?
When cereal giant Kellogg Co. sent a memo to all its plants prohibiting workers from wearing artificial nails and nail polish, employees had no choice but to conform…but that didn’t mean they couldn’t complain. “My husband works at the Kellogg plant, and he says the women were all up in arms because they had to have their nails removed,” remembers nail technician Dawn Flaharty of Sunsations Nails & Tanning in Lancaster, Pa. “But no one could afford to lose their jobs, and they were told they wouldn’t be allowed to work if they didn’t remove them.”
While Kellogg didn’t return our calls, a few employees were happy to comment on the policy. “I was wearing artificial nails when the policy went into effect about a year ago,” says one Kellogg employee. “I was upset because my natural nails are really thin, and if I don’t wear acrylics my nails break. I usually have another job waitressing, and in that job it pays to have your hands looking nice. Mine don’t look good anymore because the nails are short and stubby.”
“I think the policy is unfair,” adds another employee. “The reasoning was that we’re a food processing plant and they don’t want anything to fall into the ‘food stream.’ They’re telling us consumers had complained about fake fingernails in their cereal boxes.” Kellogg’s response to the complaints was to ban artificial nails and nail polish, which, in some employees’ opinion, is an extreme response—especially since some suspect the nail tips were planted by consumers hoping for a lawsuit settlement. Flaharty says a fellow nail technician, who says the nails Kellogg showed its employees, told her the nails were drugstore-variety press-on nails fresh out of the box.
Bad Press or Good Practice?
Kellogg isn’t alone with its “no nails” policy: A number of professions and individual companies have policies regarding the maintenance and appearance of their employee’s nails. Hershey Foods, for example, doesn’t allow employees in some of its plants to wear artificial nails or polish, and many hospitals have adopted the Association of Operating Room Nurses’ (AORN) recommended practice that “artificial nails shall not be worn.” In Clark Country, Nevada, health department regulations ban food preparers—which includes anyone who so much as dishes up a scoop of ice cream or fills a glass at the soda fountain—from wearing artificial nails.
To Julie Reese, owner of Nails Expo in Las Vegas, such policies represent yet another attack on the nail industry. “When I first heard about the health department’s new regulation, I couldn’t believe it. To be honest, I felt attacked yet again. This industry just never gets a good plug anymore,” she laments.
However, the companies and professions argue their policies have nothing to do with personal preference and everything to do with employees’ and the public’s safety. “Our policy regarding nails relates to the Food and Drug Administration’s Good Manufacturing Practices [GMP] for manufacturing, processing, or holding food. There are two areas in the practices that relate to unsecured objects and, in our opinion, artificial nails and nail polish fall in that category,” explains Natalie Bailey, manager of corporate communications for Hershey Foods.
Specifically, the GMP states that all persons working in direct contact with food, food-contact surfaces, and food packaging materials shall remove “all unsecured hand jewelry and other objects that might fall into the food, equipment, or containers, and remove hand jewelry that cannot be adequately sanitized during periods in which food is manipulate by hand.”
There’s a Nail in My Soup
While the GMP is a guideline and not a law, and artificial nails and polish are arguably secured to the nail, companies like Hershey Foods and Kellogg have both the right and the responsibility to take the precautions they deem necessary to ensure their product remain pure.
“If a fake fingernail were found by our inspectors in any food product, [the food] would be considered adulterated,” explains Judy Foulke, a public affairs representative for the FDA. “When we find a food that is adulterated, then our investigators decide with the company on a case-by-case basis how to handle the situation.” In some cases, the “handling” involves a recall—which can be as costly to the company’s reputation as it would be to its cash flow.
In retail food establishments, state and local health departments have the power to regulate employee hygiene. For example, in 1996, Clark County, Nevada, revised its food handling regulations to prohibit artificial nails. Lon Empey, supervisor, environmental health, for the Clark County Health Department attributes the change not to any one incident but to a trend indentified in random hand-swabbing tests. “Over the years we’ve found that you can swab some hands and they’ll be clean, but when you swab under the nails there are problems with bacteria.”
While the most common complaint regarding nails that Empey hears has to do with artificial nails falling into food, he says his department is more concerned about bacteria being transferred from under the nail to the food. “If a nail pops off into someone’s food, that’s a visible problem. If bacteria transfers from under the nail, the consumer has no warning that it may be contaminated.”
For this reason, many health departments base their regulations on the FDA’s 1997 Food Codes, which state, “Food employees shall keep their fingernails timed, filed, and maintained so the edges and surfaces are cleanable and not rough.” For example, the New York State Department of Health’s Sanitary Code dictates that “Employees are to keep their fingernails clean and neatly trimmed.”
Establishments that sell food and drinks, ranging from fast food chains to hotel bars, are well within their rights to set even more stringent policies based on these vague regulations. “Restaurant workers have to maintain clean hands and clean work surfaces,” says Bill Whitman, media relations supervisor for McDonald’s Corp. “If the restaurant owner or manager decides that artificial nails cause the hands to be less clean, then she is within her rights to make a policy prohibiting them.” McDonald’s Corp. itself has no policy regarding artificial nails or polish, but Whitman adds that independent owners and operators are free to develop them for their individual restaurants.
Nail technician Cindy Davis of Visible Changes Salon in Ridgecrest, Calif., understands from personal experience why a restaurant might have such a policy. “Fast food companies deal with a lot of teenagers who do their own nails, and they are falling off into the food,” she says. “When my sister worked at McDonald’s she used press-on nails, and one fell into the French fries.” Still, she argues that gloves might be a viable alternative.
Kellogg’s employees say gloves were never presented as a choice. “If we wear gloves the entire time, what’s the difference?” argues one employee. Gloves aren’t a requirement, but I wear them. They should have explored that option.”
Nail in the OR
While the food manufacturing and restaurant industries have only some admittedly broad-based guidelines to follow, in 1994 the AORN stated out-right that nails should not be worn by operating room nurses in its Recommended Practices for Surgical Hand Scrubs (see “Artificial Nails in the OR: Can beauty and Patient Safety Mix?,” NAILS, May 1995). In the recommended Practices, the association explains, “Artificial or acrylic nails on healthy hands have not been proven to increase the risk of surgical infection. However, artificial nails may harbor organisms and prevent effective handwashing. Higher numbers of gram-negative microorganisms have been cultured from the fingertips of personnel wearing artificial nails, both before and after handwashing. Numerous state boards of cosmetology report that fungal growth occurs frequently under artificial nails as a result of moisture becoming trapped between the natural and acrylic nails.”
In this instance, the nail industry may have hurt itself, because while state boards may report that fungal infections “occur frequently,” the medical community itself estimates that perhaps only 10% of the entire U.S. population ever experience a fungal infection of the nail, and the percentage of salon clients who get fungal infections is most likely much smaller, says Richard Scher, M.D. He adds that most nail disorders are labeled as a fungal infection when they are most often something else entirely.
Doug Schoon, industry chemist, also takes issue with the methodology of some research studies. “The only study I’m aware of cultured out some pseudomonas bacteria form artificial nails, but pseudomonas bacteria is everywhere,” he says. “The study concluded that everyone is at risk for taking this bacteria into surgery. It’s like the show Oprah Winfrey did once where they swabbed the seats on airlines and found all of these bacteria. But those are bacteria you will find anywhere.”
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) says it frequently gets questions about the length of fingernails, artificial nails, and the use of fingernail polish by health care workers on its resource line, but it’s not an area that’s been extensively researched. APIC did note that a few studies contradict the findings of the one cited by AORN and “document no significant difference in microbial colony counts on the hands of operating room nurses who wear artificial nails as opposed to those who don’t.” That, however, is the good news.
“No research has demonstrated any link between artificial nails and post-operative surgical infections, but that’s because no studies have been done,” adds Romona Conner, peri-operative nursing specialist for AORN’s Center for Nursing Practice, Health Policy and Research in Denver, Colo. “The potential risks are high enough that prudence would dictate that you not wear them.”
Indeed, many hospitals have adopted AORN’s guidelines, and some have extended beyond the operating room. Columbia Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, Calif., for example, prohibits nurses who work in the neonatal intensive care and labor and delivery units from wearing artificial nails as well.
However, a nurse who asked not to be named says her community hospital in the Youngstown, Ohio, area, as embraced most of AORN’s recommendations—but not this one. “I can see the pros and cons of both sides, trying to balance a nurse’s rights with the hospital’s need to protect itself from liability,” she says. “But it’s very rare today to have patient contact without gloves and masks, so I don’t see that nails are such an issue.”
Another nurse, in a letter to the editor of October’s Nursing97, says, “I wear gloves for all patient care. But as an infection control nurse, I believe that the number of infection control method is handwashing. I preach it. I practice it. Is condemning acrylic nails another case of not wanting to part with the past? Nursing has come so far. Let’s not back it up.”
Within Their Rights
Until someone definitely proves that artificial nails or even nail polish present absolutely no risk of spreading bacteria, however, companies are well within their rights to disallow them. “There are two areas that the courts have allowed employees to regulate in terms of dress codes, and those are safety and image,” explains Brian Zevnik, vice president of the Alexander Hamilton Institute, an employment law resource center. “If a company can prove that any portion of its dress code is designed to protect workplace safety—which encompasses the safety of the employee, the client, or the company’s image—then it’s on safe ground.”
Safety issues aside, “image” gives companies a lot of latitude in deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace. Disneyland, for example, dictates employees’ nails be no longer than one-quarter inch and must be painted a color that “looks natural.” (French manicures, by the way, are acceptable.)
“Image is a gray area for some companies, but they can claim business necessity. Disney, for example, can say its image is a clean-cut one, and that it needs that to stay in business as it is now,” Zevnik explains.
Lost Nails, Lost Clients?
So what do you do when your client announces her company prohibits her from wearing artificial nails? Certainly you should present her with service alternatives like natural manicures. “I switched some of my clients to manicures so that they don’t get in trouble,” says Davis. “With others, we kept their nails short and did pink and whites, and usually nobody notices.” Flaharty says a few of her clients also still get away with unpolished overlays. However, think twice before you encourage your client to thumb her nose at company policy. If she loses her job over it, she may not remember that she was the one who made the final decision.
When the company prohibits even nail polish, like Kellogg, Flaharty and Davis say you should resign yourself to losing the client. “We lost about 20 clients at once because of Kellogg’s policy. We offered them manicures, but without polish they weren’t interested,” Flaharty says. The clients did continue as tanning clients, however, and one client returned for a full set of acrylics…upon her retirement.