The EU Hairdressing Sector

The hairdressing sector in Europe employs more than one million people who work across about 400,000 hairdressing salons and receive some 350 million potential customers. Hairdressing (and barbering) services, together with beauty treatment, form the personal services sector (1).

The hairdressing trade is dominated by small establishments. Hair salons have, on average, fewer than three workers, and are, for the vast majority, run by self-employed hairdressers who often work on their own (without dependent employees). The share of self-employment in the sector appears to be two to ten times higher than in the whole of the economy. Apart from the sharp rise of microbusinesses run by owner–operators, an expansion in chain and franchise businesses can be noticed. These two trends imply a general decrease in hairdressing salons that employ five to ten workers.

Self-employed hairdressers may work in their own salon set up in their home (home-based or domestic hairdressers) or at business premises, but may also work as mobile hairdressers (visiting clients in their homes or place of work, in retirement homes, at fashion shows, weddings, etc.) or rent chairs (or sometimes rooms) at salons owned by someone else. Chair-renters do not have a contract of employment with the salon but a contract based on services provided.

The last two practices, mobile hairdressing and chair-renting, are considered to be growing in the hairdressing sector. In some EU countries, mobile hairdressers represent up to 23 % of the sector’s workforce. There is a lack of data on the prevalence of the practice of chair-renting. It is quite commonplace in some Member States, such as the United Kingdom, but not very widespread or even marginal in others.

Hairdressing is a predominantly female profession, with over 80 % women workers. Many of them work part-time and stay in the sector for only short periods of time. The sector is also characterised by a young workforce. About 80 % of recruits are aged under 26 and 56 % are under 19. In some EU countries there have been trends towards the sector becoming more dominated by migrant workers.

In general, there exist considerable differences in salaries, working conditions and training across the Member States. Owing to the rather small average size of hairdressing businesses, their average annual turnover is comparatively modest. Pay levels are generally lower than the national average in most countries. The high rate of hairdressing activities in the illegal economy in some EU countries causes substantial problems and downwards pressure on working conditions in the sector.

People working in the sector have commonly mid-range qualifications (International Standard Classification of Education levels 3 and 4, i.e. ‘upper secondary education’ and ‘post-secondary non-tertiary education’, respectively) (2). In some Member States, considerable efforts have been made to raise training standards and the quality of entrants into the profession.

The significant improvement in user-friendliness, quality and safety of mass-marketed products for home use, in particular colouring products, is leading the personal services sector to seek to compete on quality, diversify and develop new niche markets such as health and beauty treatments. The development of hairdressing requires respect for the highest quality standards, for both customers and workers, and requires social and environmental responsibility.

Main occupational safety and health risks

A visit to a hairdressing salon is usually associated with anticipations of being cared for in a relaxed environment. However, few clients are conscious of the fact that the hairdressing salon can pose serious risks to those working long and uninterrupted hours. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has recognised that hairdressers are exposed to serious occupational health risks and that improving working conditions must be a major priority (3). The cost of work-related skin diseases has been estimated to be about five billion euros a year in the EU alone (4). A United Kingdom study has reported that 70 % of hairdressers have suffered from work-related skin disorders at some point during their career (5). A Danish study compared skin diseases in the hairdressing industry with the average skin diseases in all branches of the economy. For every 10,000 workers, 57 cases were reported in the hairdressing sector against six as an average in all occupations (6). In a French study it was found that, while hairdressers represent about 1 % of the entire workforce, 20 % of the women affected by work-related asthma are hairdressers (7). The International Agency for Research on Cancer, in one of its recent monographs (2010), states that its overall evaluation for ‘occupational exposures (to chemicals) as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)’ (8). It is also estimated that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are five times more prevalent among hairdressers. Health and safety problems in the sector result in absences, lower productivity and untimely exit from the sector. Untimely exit (especially among young hairdressers, i.e. those under 35 years old) has a cost to society (increased demand for social security and healthcare services) and a negative impact on the profitability of the investments in vocational training for young hairdressers.

These health problems can be challenged effectively by introducing measures which usually cost very little. For instance, the purchase and use of gloves costs only about 1 % of the average annual turnover. Installing height-adjustable rotating chairs and non-slip flooring are also low-cost interventions.

As occurs in all workplaces, in order to understand and appropriately confront occupational safety and health (OSH) risks, one must first identify the hazards in the workplace and relate them to the likelihood of occurrence. The appropriate prevention measures should then be proposed and applied. This procedure is called risk assessment and is iterative.

From Occupational Health and Safety in the Hairdressing Sector. Based on an input from the Topic Centre – Occupational Safety and Health (TC-OSH) , Lieven Eeckelaert – Prevent , Spyros Dontas; Evi Georgiadou; Theoni Koukoulaki – Elinyae, Project management: Lorenzo Munar (EU-OSHA)

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