Lab Clearing Delta’s ‘Toxic’ Uniforms Raises Calls for Union (2)

Nov. 21, 2019, 6:09 PM; Updated: Nov. 22, 2019, 6:17 PM

After at least 943 employees formally complained that Delta Air Lines Inc.'s new uniforms caused rashes and difficulty breathing, an independent laboratory hired by the airline found the garments aren’t linked “to any attributable health risk,” according to a report obtained by Bloomberg Law.

The findings are likely to add fuel to what’s already a talking point in dueling campaigns by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the International Association of Machinists to organize Delta’s 25,000 flight attendants. Even attendants with decades of service to the company expressed frustration at the airline’s handling of the situation, according to multiple employees.

Intertox, an independent toxicology and research company, analyzed the development and makeup of Delta’s uniforms for standards compliance. A test of 628 sample garments detected the presence of some allergens and irritants but nothing to explain the widespread issues facing flight attendants, according to the firm.

“The results identified no chemicals that could have been eluted (transfered from the textiles) in sweat or emitted to air that could account for the rates of dermal or respiratory effects reported,” the lab’s Nov. 11 report said.

The airline said in a statement that employees still can wear alternative garments indefinitely and that safety and well-being of employees is the company’s highest priority.

“In addition to offering many alternative garments to the small percentage of employees who have reported a reaction, we invested in a rigorous toxicology study to determine if there was a scientifically known, universal issue with the uniform,” a Delta spokesperson said. “The results of this study show that there is not.”

Delta debuted its new line of uniforms for “above the wing” employees, which include flight attendants and customer service representatives, in May 2018. Fashion designer and “Project Runway” judge Zac Posen designed the outfits, which were then produced by Wisconsin-based retailer Lands’ End.

Problems with the garments first surfaced publicly in April when a report from the Guardian detailed hundreds of health complaints by airline employees. Two class actions over the garments are ongoing.

Union Phones ‘Lighting Up’

Efforts to unionize Delta’s flight attendants saw a boost after the airline shared the results of the toxicological risk assessment on Nov. 12, multiple employees and union officials told Bloomberg Law.

“This one just sent them all over the edge,” a flight attendant said of the report. “So Facebook blew up about it. All the activists at AFA, their phones started lighting up like Christmas trees. Evidently, AFA started getting calls. All their hotlines blew up. It was just crazy.” The flight attendant requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the airline.

Another flight attendant who previously opposed unionization said that she now sees a union as a necessity for employee engagement.

She asked not to be named, fearing punishment from Delta, but said she experienced multiple severe reactions after the new uniforms were introduced. She was rushed to the emergency room after her throat began to close and she experienced severe rashes and shortness of breath.

The flight attendant said she later was diagnosed with occupational asthma. Despite utilizing an alternative uniform, she continued to experience intense health issues when working near other employees wearing the Lands’ End uniforms. She’s now on disability and was instructed to find another position that doesn’t utilize the uniforms.

“I’m backed up into a corner,” she said. “I’m not physically disabled. I have this occupational asthma that they caused, and they should be paying for my medical bills. Instead they’re fighting.”

The report “undoubtedly” led to a surge in union interest, said AFA spokesperson Taylor Garland.

“The way the report was rolled out and the message by the company has definitely led to more and more flight attendants seeing the need for union representation at Delta,” she said.

Lawsuits, Government Inquiry

The two class actions brought by flight attendants in Wisconsin and New York allege damages against Lands’ End, not Delta.

The case in New York opened in May and is in discovery. The Wisconsin case was filed last month to get personal jurisdiction over Lands’ End and potentially set the stage for a nationwide class.

“This is a question for experts but certainly the anecdotal evidence is very, very widespread,” said New Jersey-based attorney Randee Michele Matloff. She represents plaintiffs in both lawsuits. “People are still suffering in these uniforms. And that seems to be the only thing that could be causing these problems.”

Lands’ End didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The class actions cite a doctor who identifies formaldehyde as the reason one flight attendant experienced a reaction. The flight attendant on disability said she tested positive for nickel and formaldehyde allergies.

The Intertox report found traces of formaldehyde and nickel in several uniform garments, but nothing beyond standards. Only one garment, the optional apron, didn’t meet standards and has been removed from service, according to Delta.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also investigated the uniform issue at the request of multiple employees. NIOSH closed its inquiry in June with only recommendations and no penalties, saying that it’s “possible that textile chemicals in the uniforms or the physical irritant properties of the uniform fabrics have caused skin symptoms among Delta employees.”

The agency said in its closing letter to Delta that even if tests show chemicals are present in the uniforms below established limits, some individuals may still experience a reaction. NIOSH offered the air carrier additional recommendations, including conducting detailed investigations into each employee complaint.

Continued Scrutiny

The Intertox report doesn’t close the book on Delta’s uniforms.

The Delta spokesperson said the airline is continuing to investigate complaints and develop alternative garments. It also created “a special group of leading doctors to further support Delta employees with individualized solutions.”

The IAM said its experts are reviewing the Intertox report and will release a response next week. “I think there’s a lot of skepticism out there with this report,” said Assistant Airline Coordinator James Carlson.

The AFA said it’s also launching a response. The union’s in-house industrial hygienist plans to announce a test of uniform samples as soon as next week.

Delta isn’t the first airline to come under scrutiny for employees’ reaction to new uniforms. Alaska Airlines flight attendants also experienced skin exposure issues when new garments were introduced in 2011. So, too, did American Airlines flight attendants in 2016.

Alaska worked with the AFA to identify a new uniform vendor. American Airlines announced new uniforms manufactured by Lands’ End that are to roll out this year.

The flight attendant out on disability said she hopes Delta stops at nothing short of recalling the problematic outfits. And soon.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold on,” she said. “This is a long fight for me.”

(Updated with additional background in 21st and 22nd paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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