Often targeted by the industry for their supposed lack of knowledge and infrequent inspections, salon inspectors argue that they do the best they can with what they have. We went behind the scenes to find out what they do on the job, and how essential they really are to the industry.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think for state boards is the salon inspector. They’re the ones salon owners and nail technicians come into contact with most often.
They are maligned, misunderstood, and mysterious. Although many in the industry cry for more inspectors and more frequent visits, the truth is no one really wants to see them. The last thing a salon owner wants to see is an inspector walking through the door.
“Being an inspector can be a tough job because a lot of times you feel it’s a lose-lose situation,” says Kevin Charles, chief of health systems protection for the Delaware Division of Public Health. “You walk into a salon and they’re not always happy to see you.”
Like them or not, the question remains: Are salon inspectors doing an adequate job of policing the industry?
To get a better understanding of what salon inspectors do and what challenges they face, we went straight to the source.
To Service and Protect
The media’s fascination with salons and sanitation has brought to light many of the nail industry’s problems. And while salon owners and nail technicians are certainly held accountable for their actions, state boards – and inspectors – are just as often blamed for the state of the industry. They’re often criticized for their lack of understanding of the nail industry, sporadic or nonexistent salon inspections, and warning and citations that do little to deter abuse – all of which makes an inspector’s job that must more difficult.
But while media coverage might bring unwanted attention to the problems that plague many salons, there’s also a positive side to it. “Having the media and the public aware of unlawful practices make our jobs easier,” says Rick Lopes, an information officer with the California Bureau to Barbering and Cosmetology. “The media helps put industry issues into the public eye, making licensees more aware. The public actually helps us police the industry.” And the simple truth about state boards and inspectors is that they’re not really there for the sake of the salon owner or nail technician.
“We’re there to protect the health and well-being of the public,” say Sue Sansom, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology. “But they do need to be caring and respectful of the salon industry.” Most inspectors are quick to admit that they can’t inspect as many salons as they would like and what’s holding them back is lack of funds.
“Salons are mandated to be inspected on an annual basis in Oregon,” says Bob Gruchalla, chief enforcement officer for the Oregon Board of Cosmetology. “Right now we’re averaging inspections at one year and a little under a month.”
Currently, Gruchalla says his agency is looking at the ratio of salons to inspectors to determine whether they can actually support the need for another inspector. “When you’re working for a government agency, you have to justify the need to increase you staff.”
In reality, most state boards are simply too understaffed to do any more than they currently do. Until recently, Wyoming was divided into five sections, with each board member taking one fifty of the state and inspecting salons in their respective areas, says Betty Abernathy, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Cosmetology. That number has since been reduced to one.
In Texas, 22 inspectors are expected to handle 16,293 salons. And Illinois has a total of 10 inspectors covering 9,628 salons. Add the fact that many inspectors also have fields other than the salon industry to regulate, and the situation gets even bleaker.
Inspectors in Oregon, for example, regulate a total of nine programs, which might mean having to perform a search warrant for an unlicensed tattooist one day and an investigation on an unlicensed insurer the next.
So while inspectors are expected to know the field they are policing, sometimes there isn’t enough time to get to know it as in depth as they would like to. Thus, the complaints from nail techs that inspectors don’t seem to know quite what they’re up against.
But if there were more inspectors to go around, would that really amount to fewer violations?
“Initially there would be more violations cited, but the number would be significantly reduced as word got out,” says Nancy King, a nail technician and industry consultant based in Mesa, Ariz. “I saw this happen while I was on the Maryland board. It seemed we were getting nowhere, but the number and frequency of violations lessened as word spread that we weren’t going to let things go.”
But others think that might not completely solve all of the problems. “Working without a license or an expired license are the most common violations in Oregon,” say Gruchalla. “That might diminish if we had more inspectors, but that’s just speculating. Of course, the longer the gap between inspections, the greater the propensity for sanitation violations. But I don’t know if the licensing violations would diminish significantly.”
Many state boards conduct just one or two annual inspections, and many more only go out to salons after a complaint has been filed, so the likelihood of getting caught is minimal. Most inspectors don’t even work during a salon’s busiest hours – evenings and weekends. That makes it easier for unlicensed workers to get away with breaking the law.
Some states such as Nevada, however, are changing their work hours to catch more of these culprits. “Out inspection staff is subject to duty seven days a week as the need arises,” says Mary Manna, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology. “We’re trying to catch unlicensed worker, so we go during our off hours.”
Many salon owners, however, say never mind yearly or random inspections, how about virtually none? “I’ve owned my salon for 15 years and we have been inspected a total of one time,” says Gina Marsilii, owner of Perfect 10 Nail Salon & Day Spa in Wilmington, Del. “Most inspectors have only a vague idea of what salons offer and what to look for. Sterilization and disinfection procedures are often ‘fudged’ by many salon owners and employees who become lazy. I feel this is often overlooked by inspectors.”
The Necessary Requirements
It takes a certain individual to make a career out of inspecting salons. “Inspectors should be personable, but not personal,” says Munna. “We tell them that entering a salon is like entering someone’s home. They have to introduce themselves and state what they’re there for.”
Inspectors are the first to agree that the job is not an easy one. With it comes dealing with people who are sometimes less that cooperative. “It’s gotten to the point where people will tell me to come back after work so we can fight. They’ll threaten to call the police,” say Gruchalla.
Manna shares similar worries: “They’ll sometimes run out the back door when they see us, and we even found one person hiding under a table.” In general, it’s important to have good people skills and use good judgment, but it can get difficult to maintain one’s composure. “Sometimes you do react to the way people treat you,” Gruchalla says.
The requirements to become an inspector vary from state to state. Oregon, for example, prefers applicants with a regulatory law enforcement background. “Our inspectors deal with police matters,” says Gruchalla. “We obtain search warrants, we deal with people who have criminal backgrounds, and we have a citation process, so we need people who understand what to do.”
California requires a minimum of two years’ experience with a government agency either inspecting business establishments or law enforcement (including some investigative work), or at least two years of college with at least 12 units in police science or criminology.
In Arizona, inspectors are required to be licensed cosmetologists. “We support the concept that the inspectors and especially investigators should be experts in their subject matter,” says Sansom. “They can do their own research and present information as a subject matter expert.” And although Nevada doesn’t require an applicant to be a licensed cosmetologist, it is preferred.
Typically, inspectors receive some type of training prior to heading out to the field. In Nevada, new hires accompany another inspector for a period of time. Depending on how comfortable they feel, it may take up to a year before the inspector makes the rounds alone. “One of the first things they need to get is a law book, and they’re given an exam,” says Manna. “We also give them a test where we write a scenario and have them figure out what the violations are.”
And many state boards don’t stop at just hiring inspectors. There’s also continuing education involved, which helps them keep up to date on new regulations and procedures, as well as health and safety issues. Several states, including Arizona and Alabama, are involved with the Council on Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation. The association holds conferences and offers services to help train inspectors. Arizona even provides risk management training, ethics classes, and self-defense classes.
“We keep inspectors up to date,” says Sansom. “Once in a while we’ll even bring in a manufacturer to show us how products work so we know what to expect when we’re in a salon.”
Still, that extra training is only a reality for some state boards. Due to budget restraints, some states cannot afford to send inspectors to training sessions since they are considered paid workdays, says King.
The Power of Citing
Certainly one of the advantages some state boards and inspectors have is the power to fine salons for any violations.
Utah recently began giving inspectors the ability to cite violators. According to Leesa Myers, a nail technician and instructor based in Midvale, Utah, inspectors an fine an unlicensed nail tech $200 and issue a $400 fine to the salon owner who hired her.
But does issuing citations really make that much of a difference? While some believe allowing inspectors to issue fine gives them more credibility, others say salon owners and nail techs already have inspectors pegged as the bad guys.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think most licensees believe inspectors have that much credibility to begin with,” says King. “Inspectors aren’t looking to make a quota of violations, and I think some ail techs think they are.”