Improper sterilization of tools and reuse of disposable items such as emery boards and pumice stones at nail salons were common problems in the latest public health inspection reports released to CBC News under Manitoba's freedom-of-information law.

Unlike some other Canadian provinces, Manitoba does not conduct regular inspections of salons. But of 34 complaints received in 2016, provincial health officials deemed 11 to be legitimate.

More than half of the 11 inspection reports dealt with issues around tool sterilization or reuse of single-use items.

"It appears that the salon is reusing the nail files, pumice stones, buffers," one report said. "Staff stated that [the items] were being reused."

In another case, the "facility was cleaning and reusing the single-use items," the report said, and added "reinspection to occur once they acquire a spa tool high-level disinfectant."

Health officials warn that if proper procedures aren't followed, salons can spread germs causing fungal and bacterial infections and diseases such as hepatitis or HIV.

foot infection 2

In 2014, Lisa Cefali developed a severe staphylococcal infection following a pedicure and was hospitalized. This photo shows her foot two hours after arriving in hospital, as doctors tracked the spread of her infection. (Supplied)

"I can't believe it's still happening," said Lisa Cefali, a Winnipeg salon client who once had a serious infection she believes she got during a pedicure.

"These seem obvious things, especially the reusing of tools."

While the head of Manitoba's public health inspections said that based on the number of complaints received, salons are doing well overall at protecting clients' health, it's unknown how many problems would be found if every one of Manitoba's nearly 1,000 beauty establishments was inspected.

Of the 1,086 inspections carried out in Ottawa in 2015, for example, one-fifth found a deficiency the inspector considered "critical," including instruments that weren't properly disinfected or sterilized.

Ontario municipalities conduct annual inspections of all salons and spas, and in B.C. inspections are done every two years.

In Winnipeg, a November 2016 complaint against an East Kildonan salon alleged a worker with a bleeding open sore performed a manicure on a customer without wearing gloves.  

"I washed my hands thoroughly after and hope whatever he has isn't contagious," the complainant said.

A complaint against a spa in Winnipeg's St. James area at the height of pedicure season in June 2016 alleged: "While using the electric file on her big toenail, he made a hole through to her skin that caused it to bleed. Then a female worker took over and used acetone to remove the shellac. She suggested they put a fake nail on her toe, but caller refused."  

Worker with open sore, reuse of disposables among recent problems found at Manitoba nail salons4:57

The same report said an inspector discovered that disposables were being reused, and there was skin debris in the UV cabinet and on a handheld grinder. The inspection report also noted that "there was nobody on site that could prove they held licence for beautician work."

Not all the complaints were strictly about humans. A February 2016 case took issue with the presence of two dogs at a salon.  

Health officials say that's not appropriate, and the dogs were removed.

No 'specific regulation concerning nail salons'

When CBC contacted the 11 salons in the inspection reports, some did not want to discuss the issues, while others indicated they had addressed the deficiencies and complied with the recommendations. Some reported they had changed ownership since the complaints first surfaced.

The inspection reports all indicate the complaints were resolved and the files closed.

Unlike restaurants and swimming pools, which are sometimes ordered closed, charged or fined for health hazards, nail salons in Manitoba have not been subject to those penalties, said Mike LeBlanc, manager of the provincial health protection unit.

"We do not have a specific regulation concerning nail salons or aestheticians or the personal service industry," said LeBlanc.

Mike LeBlanc explains why the province doesn't post results of nail salon inspections2:59

He said if nail salons were regulated in the same way as restaurants and pools, the province would need more staff to regularly inspect the nearly 1,000 businesses offering spa services in Manitoba.

"It would mean another six to eight inspectors, a whole new subprogram for us," he said. "We just don't see the types of problems that would justify such a response."

The 11 founded complaints in 2016 represent only about one per cent of the beauty salons, he noted.

"We'd have to show that there's a very large problem, not just 10 a year, but hundreds per year, and that there is a real big problem with cleaning and sanitizing and everything else. We really don't see that," LeBlanc said.

"The provincial government is in a red-tape reduction mode these days."

Canadian cities that conduct regular inspections of salons find significant numbers of deficiencies. 

nail salon inspections frequency

The frequency of nail salon inspections varies by province in Canada. (CBC)

Manitoba's minister of health doesn't see a reason to inspect all establishments.

"The current complaint-based program in place by Public Health has been successful in addressing the low volume of health and safety concerns reported by the public," said a spokesperson for minister Kelvin Goertzen in a statement to CBC.

"With such a small volume of complaints, and a low burden of illness in the industry, Public Health is not recommending changes to the program at this time."

Lisa Cefali sees it differently. She's been calling for tougher regulation of salons and spas since 2014, when she developed a severe staphylococcal infection following a pedicure and was hospitalized.

"I'm surprised there aren't any fines. I assumed that there would be fines much like they've done it on the restaurant side," she said.

"I'm saddened that something more hasn't been done. Like, what does it need? What needs to happen in order for something like this to be taken seriously?" Cefali said. "I think there needs to be more accountability."

Lisa Cefali

'I think there needs to be more accountability,' said Lisa Cefali, a salon client who once had a serious infection she believes she got during a pedicure. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

One measure she'd like to see is regular inspections of salons in Manitoba, rather than inspections only when there's a complaint.

'Don't wait until people complain': salon owner

That idea is supported by salon owner An Vo. He and his wife operate the Cedar Tree on Portage Avenue in west Winnipeg.

"For the inspections, don't wait until people complain, because that's too late," Vo said. "That means somebody got hurt already."

Instead, he suggests health inspectors visit salons quarterly and even go undercover, posing as clients.

"Stop by, or send somebody by to become a client. Go in there and investigate," he said.

Vo's salon was one of the 11 that were the subjects of complaints last year. The inspection report said a client complained of a bacterial infection to the thumb following a gel-nail application at the salon, and said the technician used unsanitized tools.

The inspector listed seven things that needed to be done at the salon, such as discarding single-use items like emery boards and nail buffers after use, and making sure reusable tools like nail clippers and tweezers are properly sanitized between clients.

Vo said when the inspection happened, he took it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

"We had a meeting right away, and from that point we upgraded our equipment," he said. "We want to improve our service, our quality and our safety."

An Vo

Salon owner An Vo demonstrates a new machine he bought for sterilizing reusable salon tools at his Winnipeg salon, the Cedar Tree. 'We want to improve our service, our quality and our safety,' he said. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The report noted Vo was co-operative during the inspection and indicated he would immediately correct the deficiencies.

When contacted for this story, he invited CBC to his salon to see the improvements. They include a new autoclave machine to sterilize tools.

Vo said all reusable tools are sanitized between use with clients and stored in plastic bags, and disposable items are thrown away and not reused.

"That's the way I can prove to the client, we want to provide you a service better, [make] equipment better and the trust better," Vo said.

He also said he favours making inspection reports for salons public, as happens with restaurants.

"Absolutely, so everyone can be aware of that. And that's the way you can help them improve. Because if they want more clients, then they have to improve themselves."

On your mobile device? Click here to read supplemental documents Protecting Yourself at Nail Salons and Spa Checklist from Manitoba Health.

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