According to the Royal Mail, more beauty and grooming salons opened in the UK’s high streets in 2015 than any other type of business (link here).

As other areas of personal injury claims are being squeezed ever tighter by fee reforms and fewer numbers of claims are being taken on, a growing set of claimant firms are holding out as specialists in ‘hairdressing claims’ where injuries such as chemical burns, or respiratory conditions are developed as a result of exposure to harmful chemicals. Here at BLM we have noticed a trend in the growing number of claims in this sector, in particular scalp or hair damage as a result of bleaching.

The use of bleach has serious risks to health, both to the people receiving hair treatments, and (it may not surprise you to learn) to the people carrying out the treatments on a regular basis. Most bleach-based products require patch or strand testing 48 hours before first use, to check for allergic reactions. However, despite this precaution, in 2012, Julie McCabe a 38 year old women fell into a coma to never regain consciousness and later died, a year after she had a severe allergic reaction to hair dye. The coroner involved in the case said he believed it to be only the second death in the UK resulting from the use of hair dye.

Whilst such severe allergic reactions are rare, bleach has more common risks. Hairdressers are facing claims in which re-bleaching has caused scalp or hair damage. This can occur when the customer is not happy with the colour achieved after a bleach treatment, for example, when naturally very dark hair is not lifted to the shade of blonde requested. There are clearly commercial and reputational pressures on hairdressers to keep their customers satisfied and ensure the correct colour is achieved, but this can conflict with their duty of care to act professionally and warn against, or even refuse to carry out, bleach treatments that risk damaging the scalp/hair of the customer. Overlapping, the re-application of bleach to recently bleached hair, risks chemical breakage or scalp damage.

A further risk arises from the bleaching of freshly washed hair, which can strip the scalp of its natural oils, either if the customer has washed their hair before attending the salon, which they ought to have been advised against, or on the re-application of bleach if the desired colour has not been achieved on the first application.

Hairdressing claims have their complexities. Many customers have bleached their hair for a number of years, at home and in the salon, meaning hair can be in a poor condition to start with, bringing causation into dispute. With the wide spectrum of shop bought bleaching products, available on the high street, in supermarkets and online, and the rise of online tutorials for DIY hairdressing, there is also of course the risk that the damage is in fact self-inflicted, and so handlers need to be aware of the potential for fraud.

If faced with a hairdressing claim, request any file notes made, a list of the claimant’s appointments, details of patch test results, copies of the product information, packaging and manufacturing guidelines, and the training records of the stylists involved. Full details of any complaints made contemporaneously and any incident/accident reports will also assist. Often not many documents are available in such cases, meaning detailed witness statements from the members of staff involved are a must.

With damages for damage to hair valued between £3,460 to £9,660 in the Judicial College Guidelines (14th edition), and scope for a higher award in the event of significant psychological disability or if surgical intervention is required, a bad hair day can turn into an expensive one for insurers.

As well as the claims from customers, salons may begin to face claims from the hair dressers themselves. Researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) looked at data from a long-term study of women nurses in the U.S. They looked at 55,185 working nurses who did not have COPD in 2009 and examined what happened to them over the next 8 years. During this period, 663 of the nurses were diagnosed with COPD.

The researchers used questionnaires to discover which disinfectants the nurses had come into contact with and why they had used them. These included:

  • Glutaraldehyde (a strong disinfectant used for medical instruments)
  • Bleach
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Alcohol
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (known as "quats") used to disinfect surfaces such as floors and furniture

While this research highlights the risks to those using bleach more generally there is little doubt that the same chemicals are the ones which hair dressers are regularly exposed to, often without any safety precautions or protective equipment in place.

With this in mind employers must be made aware that if hair dresser or stylists are exposed, salons face the risk of claims for COPD potentially years after the hairdressers have ceased working there.