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'Chemical burns': Delta flight attendants say new uniforms cause rashes

Some say they have faced retaliation for complaining about purple uniforms a year after company introduced them

Originally published in the Guardian on April 4, 2019 by Mike Elk

Delta flight attendants are complaining that a new set of uniforms introduced by the airline are still causing skin rashes and worse almost a year after the company introduced them.

And while the airline says it is addressing the issue, some flight attendants say they fear retaliation for complaining.

Last May, Delta unveiled a new set of slick purple uniforms designed by Bravo’s Project Runway star Zac Posen and manufactured by the retailer Land’s End.

The uniforms were designed to turn Delta’s 24,000 flight attendants into walking advertisements for the airline. Delta encouraged flight attendants to promote the new uniforms on their social media accounts.

Shortly after their introduction, some female flight attendants said that they started getting sick, reporting skin rashes, shortness of breath, and hair loss.

“I noticed right away after I put the uniforms on that I had shortness of breath and I have been a runner my whole life,” said one Delta flight attendant who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “I don’t smoke or anything like that, so when I couldn’t get up the stairs without being extremely winded, I know there was some sort of problem.”

Another flight attendant said she noticed huge rashes all over her body that made it impossible for her to sleep.

“I don’t even want to call them rashes because it’s worse than that. Some of them look like chemical burns, some of them look like chemical bites, but they don’t go away for weeks at an end,” she said. “I had a huge patch that got infected and I had to take an antibiotic, even, to get rid of it.”

On a private Facebook group used by over 2,000 flight attendants viewed by the Guardian, hundreds of flight attendants have complained of health problems as a result of wearing the new uniforms.

The Guardian spoke with scores of flight attendants that had experienced similar issues, all of whom declined to speak on the record out of fear of retaliation at the non-union airline.

The health concerns over the uniforms are serious enough that some doctors have instructed Delta flight attendants to bring EpiPens to work in case they break out in rashes.

“Image is one of the five metrics that we are rated on by customers that contribute towards our overall profile as employees,” said one flight attendant. “As a largely female workforce, it feels as though our general appearance takes priority over our health.”

While no definitive scientific analysis has determined what is causing the rashes, many doctors have told flight attendants that formaldehyde and Teflon chemical finishing, put on the uniforms to make them stain resistant and durable, are a likely culprit.

In a statement, a Delta spokesperson said: “Since we began redesigning the uniform three years ago, we have been intentional to ensure employee input and transparency every step of the way. We want our employees to be able to safely wear the new garments with pride.”

Delta said less than 1% of employees in the new uniform program had reported issues but declined to give exact figures. The company said it was “working directly with employees on solutions that meet their individual needs”. It added that an untreated uniform would be available in June.

In a statement, Lands’ End said: “We take each concern seriously and we work closely with Delta to attempt to find a solution that enables the employee to have a uniform that is both comfortable and functional.”

It’s not the first time that flight attendants have claimed uniforms have made them sick. In 2011, flight attendants at Alaska Airlines began suffering health problems after that company introduced new uniforms. In 2016, flight attendants at American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines, also began experiencing problems after new uniforms were introduced.

A 2018 study done by the independent Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study Group of more than 600 flight attendants found that the skin issues, breathing problems, insomnia and other health concerns faced by flight attendants at Alaska Airlines increased dramatically after the introduction of new uniforms in early 2011. The study found that the problems only decreased three years later, in 2014, after the union at Alaska Airlines demanded that new uniforms be implemented.

Dr Irina Mordukhovich of the Harvard group said that Delta had refused to allow the group to come in and study its problem. She said she saw parallels with how Alaska Airlines and American Eagle first responded to concerns over uniforms.

“The airlines always deny there is a problem,” said Mordukhovich. “The airlines are very risk averse when it comes to any health research studies. They don’t tend to cooperate.”

Unlike flight attendants at Alaska Airlines and American Eagle, Delta flight attendants lack a union and Delta has fought hard to oppose attempts by staff to organize. As a result, many Delta flight attendants said they were afraid to speak out publicly about the uniform problems, for fear they would be pushed out of the company.

Initially, Delta allowed some flight attendants to wear the old black and white uniforms while they studied the problem. However, in March, Delta informed some flight attendants that if they didn’t want to wear new uniforms, they would need to request a disability job accommodation with the option of going on short-term disability insurance.

Under short-term disability insurance, Delta’s flight attendants only make two-thirds of their pay and after a year would be forced either to return to their jobs or quit.

For many flight attendants, admitting that they have a problem stokes fears that they could be pushed out.

“Everyone is scared to talk about and report their reactions because we are ‘at-will’ [employees]: we can be let go whenever they want to, basically,” said one flight attendant. “Literally, we are all scared for our health, and literally nothing has been done, and [Delta’s] leadership is saying that their uniform is safe.”

“I flew a two-day trip and have been coughing and clearing fluid from my throat all day today. And my voice went last night,” wrote one Delta flight attendant in an email. “But the only way this will change is when the traveling public demands it.”