Good or bad, odor reveals little about salon air quality. Even if your salon rates "sweet" on the smell scale with employees or clients, depend on more reliable measures than your nose to rate your salon's air quality.
Clear the Air
Even as you implement “clean air” work habits, IAQ experts advise evaluating the salon’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to ensure an adequate, well-distributed supply of fresh air. In Brown’s opinion, good general ventilation will remove most chemicals and airborne particulates.
The problem is, “good” air is as intangible as “bad.”Most of us measure air quality by personal comfort, but the EPA emphasizes that temperature and humidity are only two — and the least important two, at that — aspects of ventilation. “Ventilation is actually a combination of processes which results in the supply and removal of air from inside a building,” states the agency’s fact sheet, “Ventilation and Air Quality in Offices.” To ensure good IAQ, the HVAC system must draw in an adequate amount of fresh air from the outside, “condition” it in terms of the desired temperature and humidity, then effectively mix and distribute it throughout the space. Finally, what comes in must go out, which means exhausting some of the mix.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends salon HVAC systems deliver a minimum of 25 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of fresh air for each person in the space. However, industrial hygienists emphasize that adhering to the guidelines doesn’t guarantee healthy air. For one, Brown says, ASHRAE’s salon recommendation is based on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels for an environment in which workers are engaged in light-to-medium physical activity, but it doesn’t factor in the chemicals used in a salon. The EPA also cites uneven air distribution or insufficient exhaust as equally important factors in clean indoor air.
“Lots of [business owners] rely on the HVAC system, but they need to realize that the system might just recirculate air rather than replace it,” agrees OSHA’s industrial hygienist.
OSHA recommends salon owners have their HVAC system evaluated by an experienced ventilation engineer. To that end, OSHA offers no-risk evaluations and consultations free to businesses. If the OSHA consultant identifies air quality problems, they don’t share the information with OSHA’s enforcement arm. “They’re not going to report your business to federal OSHA or impose penalties,” assures OSHA’s spokesperson.
Nor does improving salon air quality necessarily require expensive replacement or upgrade of your HVAC system. The engineer may be able to adjust the air flow or recommend low-cost changes. For example, increasing air flow may be as simple as sealing leaky ductwork with duct tape (and in that case would result in lower heating and cooling bills). Likewise, complaints from neighboring businesses may be soothed by sealing openings in the ceiling and cracks in the wall. In buildings with shared HVAC, the salon may have to install an independent HVAC system, but the option often is still less costly than relocating.
Also ask your HVAC consultant to evaluate the system layout. Godwin, for example, cites buildings where the air intake pipe was located right next to the exhaust outlet or pulling air from a loading dock area where trucks sat with motors idling. “In situations like that you can’t really consider it ‘fresh’ air,” he says.
Pay close attention to the locations of supply and exhaust vents inside as well, Brown advises. “You want air to come down from above or behind you and leave in front,” she says. This creates the ideal setup of pushing fresh air through the breathing zone and then down where it mixes with heavier contaminants and flushes them out through the exhaust.”
Local exhaust systems are most effective when they vent contaminated air to the outside. They also should pull air from below or the side (upward suction pulls contaminants through the breathing zones.)
Concentrate Your Efforts
Experts agree that ventilation and controlling the source of irritants are the first-line defenders of air quality. However, some salons — particularly ones with high client volume or that use nail drills — may require additional measures to assure good IAQ.
Brown names filing dust as both a inhalation concern as well as a skin irritant. “It gets in the eyes and lands on exposed skin — especially around the collar, in cleavage, and elbow creases,” she notes.
IAQ experts name local exhaust systems — which capture contaminants at their source — as the ideal supplement to general ventilation. These systems are most effective when they vent contaminated air to the outside. They also should pull air from below or the side — upward suction pulls contaminants through the breathing zones.
Some lab and safety supply companies sell local exhaust systems, but numerous salons have found it more cost-effective and esthetically pleasing to customize a system for their location. Maisie Dunbar, for example, worked with her general contractor and HVAC installer to design a local exhaust system when she opened M&M Nails & Wellness Center in Silver Spring, Md. It cost approximately $1,500 to cover four nail stations.
When exhausting outside isn’t an option, a two-step filtration system — one filter that removes airborne particulates and another that removes chemicals — may work. However, “This is possible only if the air cleaner contains special material, such as activated charcoal, to facilitate removal of harmful gases,” states the EPA. Brown also emphasizes that the filter must have an adequate efficiency rating and be replaced at the right frequency (which will vary by salon and nail tech). Motor speed and strength are other factors: If the air cleaner doesn’t draw sufficient air at an adequate speed, the system won’t do much more than run up the salon’s electric bill.
Rest assured that your efforts to improve air quality will be noted. Short-term health effects such as headaches and fatigue should disappear with a change of environment. What’s more, the drain to the salon’s bottom line in terms of lower employee productivity should be eased as well.