Eighteen months after reports first surfaced that Delta Airlines uniforms for flight attendants and other service employees were giving them rashes, the company has announced they’ll get new ones … in late 2021. The current uniforms were designed by Zac Posen for Lands End in 2018. Shortly after they were distributed, employees started noticing that they were breaking out in hives, losing their hair, or having coughing fits. A lawsuit was filed in Wisconsin (where Lands’ End is based) on behalf of 525 Delta employees, mostly flight attendants.
Delta’s flight attendant’s union released a statement about the announcement saying, “This is welcome news and appropriate action, albeit eighteen months late.” However, they recommended that the toxic uniform be totally removed quickly and replaced with the alternative. Currently, some Delta employees are allowed to wear other, non-uniform clothes to work — they just have to be approved. “In response to our employees, we’ve taken steps over the past few months to address feedback received about the uniform, including offering alternative garments, hiring fabric experts, and conducting comprehensive chemical testing,” said Ekrem Dimbiloglu, the director of the new uniform program to WSB-TV Atlanta.
Delta flight attendants aren’t the first to complain about health issues related to their uniforms. Alaska Airlines and American Airlines flight attendants sued in 2012 and 2016, respectively. The symptoms are all similar — rashes, hives, blisters. The Delta employees also reported flu-like symptoms or migraines. In the Alaska Airlines case, the uniforms were replaced, but the company didn’t acknowledge the link between the uniforms and the symptoms. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also found no link between the symptoms and the uniform’s manufacturer, Twin Hill.
Similarly, a study commissioned by Delta didn’t find any chemicals that could have caused the reactions in the uniforms (soon after, Delta flight attendants unionized). However, it may be because of a combination of chemicals rather than one in particular. Per Business Insider, an industry official said the processes that make a uniform stain-, wrinkle-, and flame-resistant can also make it toxic to the people who wear them. Because flight attendants wear their uniforms in a closed environment over a long period of time, they’re more exposed to those chemicals. For example, the Alaska, American, and Delta Airlines uniforms all contained formaldehyde, but not enough to make them dangerous, according to OEKO-TEX, a group that tests for harmful chemicals in textiles.
It’s important to note, as a study at Harvard did, that the chemicals used aren’t just used in uniforms — chemically treated clothing is available to consumers as well, and the treatments aren’t listed normally listed on the label. Flight attendants just make for a particularly good petri dish to see how these chemicals actually interact with our skin.