Some American Airlines flight attendants are experiencing the same skin irritation and other health issues that prompted a class action suit from Alaska Airlines flight attendants in 2012. The common link: uniform manufacturer Twin Hill.
Twin Hill is a subsidiary of Men’s Wearhouse that also manufactures uniforms for Air Wisconsin, Hilton, and UPS. It advertises the convenience of uniform alterations at any Men’s Wearhouse location.
Flight attendants, pilots, and ground personnel at American began exclusively wearing the new Twin Hill uniform in September, one of the final steps of the airline’s merger with US Airways.
Within ten days, flight attendants reported a variety of health problems, including rashes, eye irritation, headaches, and respiratory distress. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (AFPA), the union representing American flight attendants, has now received 1,600 uniform-related health complaints.
On Wednesday, AFPA requested a full recall of the Twin Hill uniform.
“APFA is pleased that many of our members like the style of the uniform articles and the range of options afforded our members,” the union said in a statement. “But the look of a uniform is of secondary importance to APFA. Our members should not only look good in the uniform, but also feel good in the uniform. Yet this feeling is not the case for a rapidly growing segment of our membership who has reported adverse reactions, including many Flight Attendants who are quite pleased with the look of the uniform.” (emphasis in original)
The union is conducting testing of the uniforms. An initial random sampling found detectable amounts of pentachlorophenol, tetrachlorophenols, and trichlorophenol, all skin-irritating insecticides and herbicides. Tests also found the irritant formaldehyde, a common ingredient in composite wood products.
American Airlines is providing skin patch testing for its affected workers.
American spokesman Ron DeFeo told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram that 200 employees have been given permission to wear the old uniform. The airline has also ordered 600 non-wool replacement uniforms, suggesting the company is focusing on the wool blend in certain uniform pieces as the culprit.
“We feel a remedy that excludes a full recall of the uniform fails to adequately protect our members,” AFPA said in response to American’s actions. “All employees deserve to be able to come to work in a uniform and an environment free from toxins and potential health hazards.”
Alaska Airlines Uniforms Contaminated With Toxic Chemical
The sequence of events is eerily similar to what happened at Alaska Airlines.
About 4,800 Alaska Airlines flight attendants and customer service agents switched to a Twin Hill uniform in February of 2011. Shortly thereafter, workers documented various skin problems, eye irritation, and even hair loss.
Some workers reported that Alaska Airlines and Twin Hill brushed off their initial concerns, believing the skin issues were a reflection of individuals’ wool sensitivities.
The Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America (AFA), which represents Alaska Airlines flight attendants, reported that US Airways received a similar response from Twin Hill when workers developed health problems from a new uniform in 2009.
Yet less than half of the new Alaska Airlines garments contained any wool. Further, Alaska Airlines had received no complaints about its previous uniform, which contained a polyester/wool blend.
“It is unlikely that 10% of the worker population would suddenly develop a wool allergy upon receiving a new uniform, when the previous uniform contained similar wool content,” industrial hygienist Judith Murawski wrote in a 2011 letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
According to the AFA, Twin Hill tested ten Alaska Airlines uniforms in March of 2011, finding “no foreign chemicals.”
Twin Hill told the airline “all polyester and Teflon finish goods include a chemical, but it is not foreign to the product.”
The company did not name the chemical.
The following April, Twin Hill acknowledged that one of the bolts of uniform fabric was contaminated with tributyl phosphate (TBP), a flame retardant and sealant that causes skin irritation.
Subsequent tests by Bureau Veritas Consumer Product Services, contracted by Alaska Airlines, confirmed the presence of TBP, though at quantities it said were not known to cause skin irritation.
The uniform fabric was either contaminated in Turkey where it was made or en route to China where it was turned into garments.
American Airlines may have similar difficulty pinpointing contamination, if that is the problem.
In a FAQ sheet posted on Twin Hill’s website, American Airlines advises its employees, “The new uniform garments and fabrics are sourced from around the globe, similar to the sourcing of our current uniforms.”
At least five countries have been involved in the manufacture of the Twin Hill uniforms for American Airlines, according to the Chicago Business Journal.
NIOSH, Court Say Twin Hill Not the Problem, But Airlines Switch Suppliers
Following the TBP disclosure, Alaska Airlines gave every uniformed employee $135 to have their Twin Hill uniforms dry cleaned using perchloroethylene, a solvent not used by “green” dry cleaners because it, too, is an irritant and a ground water pollutant.
While Bureau Veritas found no obvious or consistent reduction in the amount of TBP following dry cleaning, Twin Hill asserted that dry cleaning would remove TBP and other unspecified chemicals from its fabric, reducing workers’ skin irritation.
However, Alaska Airlines employees continued to report problems. By October of 2011, 250 flight attendants had symptoms believed to be related to the uniform.
Dissatisfied with testing by Twin Hill and Alaska Airlines, AFA contracted with the University of Washington (UW) in June of 2012 for chemical testing of the uniforms.
UW found low levels of TBP in 57 percent of the samples tested, adding that irritation caused by TBP could facilitate the entry of the dyes used by Twin Hill.
Several of the dyes detected by UW are banned in the European Union and one, Disperse Orange 37/76, is banned in the U.S. for use in apparel.
Testing of the Twin Hill uniform also found heavy metals, including excess amounts of lead and arsenic in 13 of 35 samples.
Though the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded that the various chemicals are common in garment manufacture and that the number of reports from Alaska Airlines flight attendants fell within the percentage of the overall working population that has dermatitis, AFA demanded the recall of the uniforms in November of 2012.
164 flight attendants joined a class action suit (Pallen v Twin Hill Acquisition Company, Inc) against Twin Hill.
The U.S. District Court in central California ruled in favor of Twin Hill in September, saying that the flight attendants “have not provided sufficient evidence to overcome the NIOSH findings, and essentially ask the Court to join in their speculation that the low levels of chemicals found in the uniforms could have caused their symptoms. The Court declines to do so.”
Alaska Airlines did not wait on the court decision to determine if its uniforms were safe, switching in 2014 to a uniform supplied by Lands’ End.
Delta Air Lines followed suit this year, selecting Lands’ End as its supplier and citing Alaska’s experience with Twin Hill as a factor.
Before the switch to Lands’ End, more than 800 Alaska Airlines flight attendants — roughly 30 percent — reported uniform-related health issues. In addition to the skin/eye irritation and respiratory distress, some developed abnormalities in thyroid function, kidney/bladder damage, and menstrual irregularities.
In a U.S. chemical regulatory environment so lax that AFA calls it the “wild west,” AFA now counsels its members and other unions when they are considering a uniform vendor. Unions should require vendors to define fabric additives, like the unnamed chemicals acknowledged by Twin Hill, and demand garments be free of flame retardants like TBP, says AFA.
Meanwhile, American Airlines, the largest carrier in the country, faces an expensive decision.
With over 70,000 uniformed employees, American is over ten times larger than Alaska Airlines, making a uniform change a serious investment.
The company will have to weigh if it can afford to keep using the Twin Hill uniform regulatory agencies will likely deem safe while discontent among its employees grows.