When Company Uniforms Cause Genuine Health Concerns


We generally accept that employers don’t look at company uniforms that might harm employees. In cases where uniforms do present genuine health concerns, we expect employers to address those concerns with effective solutions. Yet, it’s not always such a black-and-white issue.

A good case in point are the new uniforms introduced by Delta Airlines in summer 2018. The ‘Passport Plum’ uniforms replaced older uniforms that hadn’t seen an update in 12 years. Unfortunately, some workers appear to be having reactions to the uniforms. Some are complaining of skin rashes and chafing caused by the apron straps while others say they’ve had allergic reactions to the fabric.

So what is Delta to do? According to news reports, they are looking into providing alternatives, including 100% cotton blouses and jackets. They are also considering allowing affected employees to wear plain black suits.

Looking Into Claims

Employers have a minimum responsibility to at least look into uniform claims, says Utah-based Alsco. As the company that established uniform rental in the U.S., Alsco knows how important it is to pay attention to what workers say about their uniforms. Any claims of adverse reactions should be taken seriously.

Whether or not Delta is doing that in earnest is a matter of perspective. The airline says they are doing what they can to address potential adverse health reactions. However, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), working on behalf of Delta’s non-union flight attendants, don’t think the airline is doing enough. They’ve asked the CDC to intervene.

The IAM claims that many affected Delta flight attendants and pilots are not speaking out for fear of repercussions. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. At any rate, Delta is going to have to figure this out one way or another.

Not an Isolated Incident

Note that Delta’s uniform difficulties are not an isolated incident. American Airlines issued new uniforms in 2016 only to discover that the clothing was causing significant problems for a large number of employees. American has allegedly been sued by 7,000 employees who claim to have had an adverse reaction.

Some of the reactions have been limited to minor issues like skin rashes and headaches. Others have been far more serious. Some employees have complained of fatigue, autoimmune problems, and even hair loss.

Worker advocates claim chemicals in the fabric are the main culprit in the American Airlines case. But experts have testified that any chemicals found in the fabrics are not in high enough concentrations to cause problems. The debate is still out on exactly what is causing reactions to the uniforms.

Listen and Fix

At the end of the day, company uniforms causing adverse health reactions among staff members is not good for anyone. The last thing a company wants is for employees to get sick as a result of the work clothes they are wearing. At the same time, is there really any way to produce a company uniform that will be 100% safe for every single worker?

We live in a world governed by synthetics. And even if companies did go back to 100% cotton or wool, those fabrics would cause adverse reactions in some people.

It’s unrealistic to assume a perfect uniform is possible. So the better way to look at it is to say that employers should listen to their workers whenever designing uniforms. Once those uniforms are issued, they should listen closely to any and all complaints. They should fix anything that can be fixed. And where accommodations have to be made, they should be made.