Hundreds of Southwest Airlines flight attendants are said to be suffering the effects of a ‘toxic’ uniform according to union chiefs – although that number might only be the very tip of the iceberg. More and more of Southwest’s 17,000 flight attendants have been ringing the alarm about the issue after similar issues at American, Alaska and Delta Air Lines.
The true scale of the issue at American Airlines was much worse. Thousands of flight attendants reported allergic reactions to a new uniform introduced by the airline in partnership with Men’s Warehouse in September 2016. Victims of the ‘toxic’ uniform experienced rashes, hives, breathing difficulties, hair loss and other health issues.
Eventually, American decided to replace the entire uniform and sought an alternative supplier in the form of Lands’ End. The reworked uniform, complete with STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX certification to prove harmful chemicals weren’t used in the manufacturing process, was rolled out on March 2.
But union officials believe the number of flight attendants at Southwest suffering from reactions to their uniform is being seriously under-reported, possibly for fear of “being targeted” according to Chad Kleibscheidel, a spokesperson for Transport Workers Union Local 556.
Others, he says, are worried about getting approval to wear an alternative uniform, while some flight attendants are concerned they’ll be forced to take time off work on sick leave – time they won’t get paid for.
The union is said to be in the final stages of developing an online reporting tool for its members. While hundreds of complaints about the uniform have already been received, that number may well go up when flight attendants find an easy and confidential method of reporting symptomatic reactions to their uniform.
Southwest debuted its latest uniform back in 2016 and rolled out the garments the following year. It was the first major redesign of its uniform in 20-years and the airline proudly boasted that the uniform had been designed by its own employees.
But there are concerns that chemicals used in the production of the uniform garments may be unsafe. Southwest maintains that independent lab tests have found no cause for concern but whistleblowers say the airline refuses to tell staff what chemicals are actually in the uniforms and at what levels.
Tonya Osborne, a long-serving flight attendant for Southwest based in Orlando, told the Philadephia Inquirer, she was invited to a meeting with company officials back in November 2018 after pressing the company on the issue.
Osborne and two of her colleagues were shown a ‘pass/fail’ sheet of chemicals found in the uniform. When asked about several areas that had ‘failed’, Osborne was told not to worry. None of the flight attendants was allowed a copy of the sheet.
“To me, they’re hiding something, if we couldn’t even bring home that sheet,” she told the inquirer.
But Southwest says the events of that meeting have been “mischaracterized” and maintains that the uniforms “do not pose a health risk to Southwest employees”.
“…the test results are entirely consistent with what would be expected if similar off-the-rack retail garments were tested,” a statement from the airline continued.
Nonetheless, Southwest claims to have “established programs to provide uniform accommodations – including paying for alternate uniform pieces made of different materials, which can be sourced by the company or selected by the employee from a retailer of their choice.”
Why uniforms are causing so many problems at so many airlines is a mystery that hasn’t yet been fully solved. Representatives from the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) believe a lack of regulations in the United States is partly to blame – there have not been any reported issues with uniforms at comparable airlines when new uniforms have been introduced.
Then there’s the desire to make uniforms cheap and easy to care for – using various chemicals that make them wrinkle-proof, water-resistant and easy to iron.
Both Alaska and American have been forced into embarrassing and expensive uniform designs over the issue. Delta is also said to be mulling the need to completely reissue uniforms in new fabrics to thousands of staff. The airline is currently being sued on the issue, although publicly maintains the current uniform is safe.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.