Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Nail salons not checked for years under Alberta's inspection system

A review of three years of Edmonton inspection reports obtained by CBC through a freedom of information request shows that at least one nail salon went without an inspection for six years.

CBC obtained inspection reports for Edmonton-area salons from 2013 to early 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Some Alberta nail salons go years without inspection

5 years ago
Duration 1:28
A CBC News investigation reviewed three years of inspection reports obtained through freedom of information. The documents show that at least one nail salon went without an inspection for six years, and others failed to meet recommendations even months after an inspection.

Alberta nail salons and spas are not inspected on a regulated basis, and some in Edmonton have gone without one for years, a CBC news investigation has found. 

A review of three years of Edmonton inspection reports obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request shows that at least one nail salon went without an inspection for six years.

Other salons cited for outstanding safety violations or cleanliness problems weren't re-inspected for years.

"How they get away with it, I'll never know, especially on those foot baths," said Edmontonian Loretta Thir, who complained to Alberta Health Services that her toes became infected after she was cut during a pedicure. "They should have inspections regularly. And spur of the moment. No notice given. Just walk in and see what they're doing."

Dr. Kathryn Koliaska is the provincial lead medical officer of health in charge of environmental health inspections for Alberta Health Services.

Koliaska said inspection frequency depends on a number of factors, including complaints and past history. Some municipalities also require inspections as a condition of issuing a business licence.

Asked why a salon could operate without an inspection for six years, Koliaska said there is no legislative requirement for businesses to notify AHS that they exist, so they can fly under the radar.

She said the Alberta system operates as a "partnership" between salon owners, the public and customers, relying on "the responsibility of the owner-operator to use safe techniques, for customers to raise a concern as soon as they notice it, and inspectors to work with the owners and operators to clear up any gaps or any problems that may occur."

When asked whether a system that relies on owners to reveal themselves and customers to complain is sufficient, Koliaska said: "We're doing the very best we can in the situation we're currently in."

Koliaska said AHS is moving to a new "risk-based" system this fiscal year, where the frequency of inspections will be based more on the record of a business and the knowledge of the staff and owners.

Alberta law doesn't specify how often personal service facilities like spas and nail salons are inspected. (CBC )

While inspections aren't legally required, another AHS official said that doesn't mean few are being carried out. There were 9,000 facility inspections conducted across Alberta in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

That included 1,891 inspections in the Edmonton zone, which includes Leduc, Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove and Beaumont. Inspections within Edmonton city limits are conducted by six environmental health officers, who are responsible for thousands of facilities. Edmonton zone inspectors responded to 118 complaints, and inspected another eight businesses that had two complaints each.

"To suggest there are no inspections happening on a regular basis is incorrect," Shannon Evans, manager of communications for the provincial programs team at AHS, said in an email.

Still, Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said in an interview she is concerned about the inspection system and some of the health issues outlined by CBC, which she plans to discuss with her staff.

In particular, Hoffman said she's concerned that Alberta allows nail technicians to perform manicures and pedicures — procedures with the potential to injure clients —without needing a licence or training in technique or infection control. Hoffman said she will ask Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt if something can be done.

"I know that the regulations were up for review and that the department was doing some work on it, but it definitely wasn't top of mind for me," said Hoffman. "So I appreciate you raising this."

Beige foam

Thir said she went to the Q Nails location near her home in northwest Edmonton to use a gift certificate her husband had given her for Christmas in 2015.

What was supposed to be a fun afternoon for the semi-retired hairstylist changed as soon as she put her feet in the pedicure basin.

The jets on the water stirred up beige-coloured foam. Then her big toe was nipped by a cuticle cutter.

"I think you cut me," she said she told the nail technician, as she jerked her foot back.

It turned out part of the metal clipper had broken off.

"Within a couple of days, I not only had infection in the big toe, then it went to the next toe and then it went to the middle toe," Thir recalled.

After Thir complained to AHS, an inspection found that an inadequate disinfectant was being used on tools. Used sanding bands and dirty socks were being stored in pedicure drawers, the inspection found.

Thir said it took a year for her big toe to fully heal.

Many nail salons in shopping centres and strip mall are set up so customers can get manicures and pedicures on a drop-in basis. (Rick Bremness/CBC News )

Six years without an inspection

The inspection reports obtained by CBC cover 2013, 2014, 2015 and the first few months of 2016. CBC initially requested reports for all of Alberta, but AHS wanted $13,000 to process that request.

After compiling a list of every business inspected in the three years of inspection documents, CBC News found that some spas and hair salons that do pedicures and manicures were not listed.

For example, only two of the four outlets of the Eveline Charles chain of spas showed up in the reports. The City Centre location was last inspected in December 2011. The newer South Edmonton Common location was inspected in June 2015, and twice in 2016.

There were no reports for the Kingsway or City Centre outlets of Spasation. When CBC followed up, AHS said the Kingsway location was inspected in November 2011 and June 2017. The City Centre location was last inspected in August 2012.

CBC asked for the history of another long-standing downtown hair salon that does manicures and pedicures. AHS had no inspection reports as the business wasn't in the database.

The documents further reveal some salons with outstanding problems were not followed up until another inspection was done a couple of years later. There are also examples where salons were cited for violations but nothing had changed when inspectors returned months later.

In one case, an inspector noted a Q Nails outlet on Calgary Trail hadn't been inspected once since it opened six years earlier. 

Loretta Thir had a manicure and pedicure at this Q Nails location in northwest Edmonton in December 2015. (Rick Bremness/CBC )

"No major concerns at this time," wrote environmental health officer Thomas Cheung.

"Facility has been in operation for the last six years without an inspection. Considering this, the facility is well run."

In another letter sent to a woman who complained about contracting toe fungus at a salon, the same environmental health officer said inspections were done on a demand or complaint basis.

"The facility you suspect may or may not have been inspected before," Cheung wrote in May 2015.

Message not getting through?

While AHS considers itself to be in "partnership" with owners, some businesses don't appear to be holding up their side of the bargain.

The reports show that inspectors try to educate owners on proper infection control techniques when problems are found. But for some, the message wasn't getting through.

(CBC)

A Studio Nails outlet in Southgate Mall was issued a closure order at the end of July 2017 due to filthy conditions. The inspector observed tools with skin, nail dust and debris on nail clippers and cuticle nippers, stored in plastic pouches, ready to be used by staff.  The order was inactive when it was posted online, suggesting the problems had been resolved to the inspector's satisfaction. 

AHS issued a health order to the owner of the same Studio Nails outlet in April 2015 for similar issues, including visibly dirty nippers and drill bits at work stations.

The 2015 inspection was triggered after a woman complained a nail technician put the tip of a bottle, containing a substance used to stop bleeding, directly on her cut cuticle. She told AHS she was being tested for blood pathogens.

An inspection of a Q Nails outlet at 141st Street and 23rd Avenue in September 2012  found tools used for pedicures were not properly cleaned and disinfected. Tools were wiped with alcohol — not even close to the 10-minute contact time required — and stored in a UV cabinet.

"The UV cabinet is not a proper way to 'sterilize' or disinfect tools," the inspector noted.

A follow-up eight months later found the inspection appeared to have made little impression on the operators.

"No changes have been made since the last inspection," the inspector wrote in May 2013.

Alberta is in the middle of the pack when it comes to inspection frequency compared to other provinces. In Ontario, hair and nail salons are inspected at least once a year, in B.C. it's every two years.  Inspections in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are triggered by complaints.

Newfoundland requires every personal service facility to register with Service NL, so inspectors know they exist.

Injuries, worries about blood-borne diseases

The reports detail complaints from people who suffered staph infections, contracted toe fungus, lost toenails, worried about hepatitis B and had their heels cut by blades used to trim calluses.

  • A woman had her toe cut during a pedicure in June 2015 at the Vo's Nails outlet in Bonnie Doon Shopping Centre. The worker continued the service, which is against the rules. A subsequent inspection found there was no first-aid kit on site. Tools weren't properly cleaned and disinfected. The inspector had to show staff how to properly wash and sterilize tools. A letter was sent to the owner outlining procedures to be used when a client is cut. "DO NOT CONTINUE WITH THE PEDICURE OR MANICURE. STOP," the letter said, using bold, capital letters.
  • A woman complained about getting toe fungus during a pedicure at Vo's Nails in Capilano Mall in May 2015. An inspection found the salon in such poor condition it was closed for the day so workers could scrub the foot baths. Debris and skin fragments were found on nail clippers and cuticle nippers. The disinfectant had expired three months prior. Workers were spraying tools with 70-per-cent alcohol, and then storing them in a UV box. Neither action accomplished proper sterilization, the inspector noted. There was no hot water in the bathroom for the workers to wash their hands.
  • An inspector discovered similar issues at the same outlet, Vo's Nails, in August 2013. Dirty tools were found at stations. Tools were not cleaned properly using the proper intermediate-level disinfectant. The owner was instructed about which disinfectants to use.
  • A woman complained to AHS in August 2015 that one of her toenails fell off after she got a pedicure at Posh Nails on Windermere Way two months earlier. An inspection found nippers were visibly dirty and rusted. Drill bits were not properly cleaned and disinfected and stations were covered in nail dust. When the inspector returned the next day, nothing had been fixed. The issues were finally resolved two weeks later.
  • A medical officer of health alerted AHS after a woman called HealthLink in July 2014 with concerns about possible hepatitis B. The complainant said she was nicked by a drill bit while getting artificial nails at B Perfect Nails in St. Albert. An inspection found the salon didn't use the proper level of disinfectant and did not properly clean its tools. The owner corrected the problems after they were pointed out by the inspector.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada. You can reach her at Michelle.Bellefontaine@cbc.ca.

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