Her dermatologist put it this way, according to a medical form Osborne submitted to Southwest that September: If she “continues to wear the uniform, she will continue to have a severe rash that may reduce her ability to perform her duties.”
Over the last decade, flight attendants at several major airlines have said their uniforms are making them sick. They have reported the issues to labor unions, discussed symptoms among one another in a private Facebook group, and laid out their claims in lawsuits. In New York and Wisconsin, suits are pending against Lands’ End, maker of Delta’s “Passport Plum” uniform. In Illinois, American Airlines faces a proposed class-action suit, brought by flight attendants and pilots, which the company has asked a federal judge to dismiss.
So far, three air carriers have agreed to replace their uniforms, after complaints. American Airlines, which dominates travel at Philadelphia International Airport, started using new uniforms this month for more than 50,000 employees, and Alaska Airlines is rolling out a new uniform collection this year as well. Delta said in January that it, too, will seek a replacement uniform.
Flight attendants at Southwest are also experiencing symptoms they say are linked to uniforms, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Inquirer. One person was so alarmed about the uniform’s effects on her body that she had a garment tested for heavy metals and toxins by a private lab. Southwest has held at least two meetings for a handful of flight attendants to speak with a toxicologist at corporate headquarters.
The union that represents Southwest’s 17,000 flight attendants says that “hundreds” of its members have reported uniform-related health concerns, including skin reactions, localized swelling, headaches, and difficulty breathing.
Chad Kleibscheidel, a spokesperson for Transport Workers Union Local 556, declined to provide specific figures, but said more people have reported symptoms to the union than to the company directly. He said it’s possible that flight attendants are underreporting the health issues to Southwest, because they fear “being targeted,” worry about missing work, or are daunted by the process of getting an alternative uniform approved.
“There have been hundreds of people who have had an issue or a problem,” Kleibscheidel said. “Some flight attendants have moved through the process swiftly and successfully, and others have not, and that poses a problem.”
The union is in the final stages of developing an online reporting system to collect more data from workers on “any issues or problems they may be experiencing,” he said. “Our role as safety professionals begins the moment we put our uniform on,” Kleibscheidel said. “It must be safe for everyone who wears it.”