Revealing Exposures
Health and Safety Concerns in Strip Clubs
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Editor’s note: Author Eva M. Glosson will be presenting an education session on the topic of occupational hazards in strip clubs at AIHce EXP 2022 with her Washington State Department of Labor and Industries colleague Venetia Runnion, CIH, CSP, on Tuesday, May 24, at 2 p.m. CT. Glosson is the coauthor of “Mortal Exposures,” an article on industrial hygiene in the death care industry, which was published in the March 2019 issue of The Synergist.
The American strip club is a $7 billion industry with a rich history in the tradition of the circus, burlesque, cancan, go-go dancing, and striptease. The clubs we know today became standardized in the 1970s and ’80s and feature entertainers who strike up conversations with guests and perform dances. Already aware of some of the major risks in the industry, the entertainers, DJs, servers, floor watchers, and management work diligently to ensure that the staff and guests stay safe through each evening. Unfortunately, strip clubs and other businesses in the adult entertainment industry are often considered taboo workplaces; as a result, they may be hesitant to request outside help, including from safety and health professionals.
Adult entertainment establishments were recently a focus of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries due to safety and health concerns brought to the state legislature. These concerns resulted in Engrossed House Bill 1756 (EHB 1756), a state rulemaking on adult entertainer safety, and a local emphasis program in which strip clubs were inspected to determine compliance. EHB 1756 established requirements for “know your rights” training, panic buttons for entertainers to use in emergencies, and “blacklists,” which document accusations of guests’ violence against entertainers—all with the goal of increasing the safety of entertainers and the industry.
Strip clubs are typically regulated by municipal codes that are heavily swayed by communities’ moral persuasions. Once these codes are established, getting them relaxed can be a herculean task. As a result, the industry is very protective of itself. This means entering a club as a health and safety professional requires some sensitivity and patience to earn the trust of the workers. Inside the club, the hazards may be more or less commonplace, but it’s not just another work site.
ENTERING THE DANCE FLOOR The main floor of a club is where the guests meet the entertainers when they are not dancing on the stage. Typically, guests are able to sit in chairs, at tables, or in booths and can enjoy food or drinks depending on the local laws governing the establishment. Because a good club is selling its guests the experience of a fun night out just as much as nudity, a club is going to have much of the same atmosphere as a dance club with loud music and party lights, which may include dark walkways and bright stage lighting.
In Washington, state regulations require the clubs’ interiors to have a minimum light measurement of three foot-candles (32.28 lux) as the main floor is a general area where no task-specific activities are happening. However, brighter lighting is required in areas such as the front lobby where guests’ IDs are verified. Health and safety professionals should also pay attention to elevation transitions, such as stairs on the stage or into the bathroom or dressing room, especially if there is a drastic change in lighting levels that would require the eyes to adjust. It is important to keep in mind that theatrical footwear is part of the job for entertainers, with many wearing heeled platforms that begin around six inches tall. LED strip lighting around stairs or corners will aid workers in navigating these transitions and will help them spot spilled drinks and guests’ legs kicked out in the walkways.
The loud music can easily blast over 85 dBA, which requires club management to address potential high noise areas. While many entertainers work less than eight hours per shift, other staff members work longer shifts. If the noise levels are above 90 dBA, employers may need to implement a hearing conservation plan to prevent hearing loss among workers regardless of shift length. DJs can use special sound-mixing software to ensure that music volume is at a safe level, and speakers should point away from hard surfaces to avoid sound reflections. This is important for entertainers’ exposures because many stages have a back wall; if speakers are pointed toward the wall, it can dramatically increase their dose.
Spray bottles of isopropyl alcohol were in strip clubs long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Isopropyl alcohol is used to clean the poles to make them safe for entertainers to climb; it removes sweat, oil, and lotions to ensure the entertainers have a good skin-to-pole grip.
WORKING THE POLE An entertainer will perform on an elevated stage for two to three songs. Depending on the stage setup, the entertainer may be able to choose from multiple poles to dance from. If the stage is large enough, multiple entertainers may share the stage. There are two main types of poles: a static pole and a spinning pole, with the height of the poles depending on the ceiling height. These poles should be installed by a knowledgeable person to ensure that entertainers will not injure themselves or guests in the audience due to faulty installation. Both types of poles have pros and cons depending on the types of moves an entertainer would like to perform; however, a spinning pole may have a few additional safety risks to consider. Since a spinning pole sits in a stationary footing with lubricated ball bearings, the entertainer is able to wrap around the pole to achieve fast-paced spins. This can cause them to become dizzy and disoriented, especially if they are not used to working with this type of pole and are in the middle of a performance with loud music and bright lights. These maneuvers can be jarring to the visual vestibular system, so the entertainer must train their head to focus after dismounting from the pole, especially if spinning quickly. Another hazard to be aware of while entertainers are upside down on a spinning pole is the possibility for longer hair to become twisted around the base. While the sheath of the pole is typically snug in the footing, entertainers should be aware of loose hair or any straps that may be dangling down from their body to the floor to ensure that nothing becomes tangled around the pole’s base. Regardless of the type of pole, entertainers are prone to skin pinching, bruising, and joint injuries. Pole work is a very athletic endeavor; novice entertainers can easily injure themselves as they are learning techniques, and veteran entertainers can aggravate pre-existing injuries. Pole work requires a monumental amount of hand and upper body strength, with shoulders, elbows, and wrists all prone to musculoskeletal injury. When an entertainer climbs a pole, it is critical that there is a good grip between the skin and the surface of the pole, which is why entertainers should not use moisturizers such as lotions or body oils within 24 hours of working a shift. Many theatrical and acrobatic stunts that entertainers perform on a pole in a strip club, like free falls and spiral drops, can also be found in a circus venue. To perform these safely, the entertainer must be able to quickly adjust their grip on the pole to prevent a fall on the stage. If the pole is slick, these “skin brakes” are not possible, so poles are cleaned with a solution of isopropyl alcohol and a paper towel or microfiber cloth to remove any oil and sweat residue between sets. If full nudity is allowed in the clubs, there may also be bloodborne pathogen contaminants due to unintentional vaginal contact with the surface of the pole. If the entertainer cleans the pole after dancing, any potential contact with a bloodborne pathogen is kept with the owner of those pathogens. With the frequent cleaning of these poles, the stage and dancing surfaces can become slick or sticky with residue buildup. Throughout the shift, servers or supervisors will typically come onto the stage to do a deep clean, which includes wiping down the poles, stage surfaces, and any mirrored walls that may be behind the stage. Dance stages are generally hard surfaces made of Corian or other manufactured materials similar to those used in kitchen countertops, and it is important that the entertainers have a safe surface on which to perform. Any accumulation of cleaning chemicals can not only create an unsafe walking- working surface but also has the potential to cause dermal irritation due to the copious amounts of exposed skin. If a harsh chemical is used to clean the pole, entertainers can also suffer the consequences of dermatitis on the sensitive skin of their groins, inner thighs, inner arms, and the backs of their legs. Additionally, in the age of COVID-19, masking guidelines can cause confusion regarding when workers and guests need to wear a mask to comply with recommendations or proclamations. An entertainer will have labored breathing while performing acrobatic moves on the pole even without wearing a mask, and a mask can create an additional respiratory burden for them—especially if it becomes saturated with sweat or moist exhalations. It is important to remember that masking guidelines typically have exclusions for theater entertainers and athletes; an entertainer performing erotic dancing would be considered both of these. HAZARDS OF THE VIP ROOM If an entertainer has received a lot of attention during their performance on stage, or they have made a connection with a guest on the main floor, they may offer to perform a private dance for the guest. There are two main types of private dances: a lap dance and a VIP experience. If a guest would like a lap dance, they will typically go to a side area that is more private than the main floor, where the entertainer will perform a one-on-one dance for the duration of a song. If a guest would like extended time with an entertainer or more privacy, they can request a VIP room, which is more secluded and is typically rented for 30 or 60 minutes. Entertainers are cash-based workers and tend to carry their tips in purses, which can make them more likely targets for theft, especially on busy nights when they haven’t had a chance to empty tips in their break room locker. Police calls reviewed for this industry in Seattle showed reports of attempted snatch-and-grab robberies. The risk of workplace violence exists throughout adult entertainment establishments, but conversations with workers in the industry indicate that the VIP room is the most isolated area where fights have broken out with both guests and entertainers. Before a guest enters a VIP room, it is critical that a safe negotiation takes place on the price, duration, and expectations for what happens in the room. This is especially important if it is the first time a guest has experienced a VIP room because some first-timers may misunderstand what happens in these areas. According to entertainers, sometimes guests will want to simply talk, while others may want to experience dancing the entire time, which can make for a very demanding hour. During a VIP experience, an entertainer can become very focused on their guest—perhaps due to extensive dancing—and can become dehydrated. The risk of dehydration is higher if the entertainer has been very busy and hasn’t had a chance to take proper breaks. Worker interviews revealed this as a real issue for entertainers. One way to address this is to have the floor watchers check in with entertainers to see if they would like a “ladies’ drink.” Care should be taken to ensure that entertainers’ drinks remain uncompromised; entertainers should always keep an eye on their drinks to ensure no one tampers with them. A common misperception about strip clubs is that the entertainers will take guests into the VIP rooms and perform unregulated sex services. This fallacy has led to dangerous situations for many entertainers. According to entertainers and club management alike, multiple situations can result in a guest becoming hostile with an entertainer. For example, a guest might direct a slur at an entertainer who won’t do something or make a nasty remark that reduces them to a commodity. More extreme instances of assault will likely require a police report or medical attention. Newer entertainers who are learning how to navigate eager guests while building their confidence and understanding their own personal boundaries are at higher risk for workplace violence as they learn to read the body language of guests. While the majority of guests who visit a club are well behaved, some take liberties with the entertainers that are outside the established code of conduct. It is a reality that some guests will ejaculate during lap dances, some intentionally and some unintentionally. If the ejaculate is uncontained, the semen creates a bloodborne pathogen hazard for the entertainers, janitorial staff, and other workers—not to mention other guests of the club. The most common deposit areas are typically on curtains; the seats, sides, and backs of soft seating; and the corners of the floor. Black UV light with yellow or orange eyeglasses can be used to identify the semen by visual inspection, as semen fluoresces under this wavelength of light. Other fluids will also fluoresce under these lighting conditions, so additional clues such as common deposit spots, splatter patterns, and handprint-shaped smears will help narrow down what could be semen versus a spilled drink. To identify semen in the field, a presumptive test using a reagent semen ampule can easily be performed. These tests are similar to a lead check where the user crushes two bulbs in a stick, which sends fluid down a shaft that ends in a fibrous tip. The presence of acid phosphate (semen) causes it to turn a deep purple. PROTECT YOUR LOCAL STRIP CLUB Performing industrial hygiene work in a strip club is an incredibly unique and rewarding experience once you are able to build rapport and earn the trust of the staff. It can be difficult for workers in this industry to feel respected, with many hiding what they do for a living from the public. While the industry is still reluctant to open up to occupational and environmental health and safety professionals and researchers, the best way to break down these walls is to visit your local strip club. Meet your local entertainers and throw some dollars on the stage (the common etiquette is to tip at least $2 per dance). Many of us OEHS professionals were apprehensive the first time we got in a fall harness and rocketed to the top of a silo or crawled in a gnarly tunnel full of pipes to enter a hazardous atmosphere. Walking into a strip club is tame by comparison. Understand that this is a workplace with workers who deserve safe and healthy working conditions and to be treated with dignity and respect. EVA M. GLOSSON, MS, is an industrial hygienist at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Division of Occupational Safety and Health in Seattle. Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank Venetia Runnion at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Winter Finick and Eric Forbes of Deja Vu Northwest, and the entertainers of the Puget Sound area for their assistance with this article. Send feedback to The Synergist.
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Washington State Department of Labor and Industries: “Adult Entertainer Safety Rulemaking.”
Washington State Legislature: Washington Administrative Code, WAC 296-800-21005, Provide and Maintain Adequate Lighting.