Harvard Publishes Study about Uniform Reactions at Alaska 2011-2014

Harvard Publishes Study about Uniform Reactions at Alaska 2011-2014

AFA continues to fight for safe uniforms at PSA, Envoy, and Piedmont

Published on Jan. 3, 2018, a study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health documents “a relationship between health complaints and the introduction of new uniforms” among Flight Attendants at Alaska Airlines from 2011-14. The Harvard study is published and you can download a free copy here.

AFA professional staff, in collaboration with the Alaska MEC, took a thorough and structured approach to define the chemicals in the new uniforms and the reactions reported by our members. Our systematic collection of the science and the reports from Flight Attendants gained the interest of Harvard scientists and researchers to conduct an independent review, which was significant. This study provides a credible, scientific voice that illustrates the urgent need for airlines and uniform vendors to address this issue in a meaningful way. AFA will also continue to seek relief for Flight Attendants, as well as work with airlines to put procedures in place that will allow for safe delivery of new uniforms.

While AFA’s work paved the way for this study, Harvard worked independently to systematically assess Flight Attendant symptom reports before and after the uniform rollout at Alaska Airlines. Specifically, they collected and compared responses to the same set of standardized questions before, during, and after wearing and working around the TwinHill uniforms. These peer-reviewed findings validate the reports that so many Alaska Flight Attendants documented during that uniform rollout. During that time, 753 of approximately 2900 (26%) of Alaska Flight Attendants reported uniform reactions – dominated by irritant and allergic-type symptoms - to AFA.

Harvard’s research found that the prevalence of the following symptoms increased after the introduction of new uniforms: itchy/irritated skin (25 vs 13), rash/hives (23 vs 13), itchy eyes (24 vs 14), blurred vision (14 vs 6), sinus congestion (28 vs 24), , sore throat (9 vs 5), cough (17 vs 7), hoarseness/loss of voice (12 vs 3), shortness of breath (8 vs 3), and multiple chemical sensitivity (10 vs 5). During that uniform rollout, AFA also received a large number of reports of hair loss (117), unusual fatigue (83), and other non-irritant symptoms. However, because Harvard had not included questions about those symptoms in its “pre-rollout” survey, it was not possible to compare the prevalence of those symptoms over time.

Now history seems to be repeating itself. Since their uniform rollout at PSA, Envoy, and Piedmont in September 2016, more than 500 of our members, together with thousands of our sisters and brothers at American, have documented similar reactions to their TwinHill garments. The Harvard authors acknowledge the similarities between these outbreaks and note that, together, they “warrant further investigation of the specific chemical toxicants, clothing concentrations, body burdens and health effects.”

Additionally, on Jan 11, 2018, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (“NIOSH”) released a Health Hazard Evaluation of Flight Attendants’ symptoms during/after wearing the TwinHill uniforms at American, which are the same uniforms being worn by AFA members at PSA, Envoy, and Piedmont. AFA provided information to NIOSH on the reported symptoms, chemical testing, and other data to ensure that our members’ voices were heard. The bottom line is that NIOSH recognized that “”irritant and allergenic compounds were identified in some uniform garments, which could cause [reported] skin symptoms.” NIOSH also cited evidence that exposure to low levels of chemicals and chemical mixtures in textiles can cause symptoms. Finally, NIOSH recommended that AA “remove employees with physician-diagnosed health problems related to the uniform from exposure, and retain pay and benefits for these employees,” including potential “reassign[ment] (with retention of pay and employment status) with work conditions in which exposure is minimal or nonexistent.”

AFA encourages our membership to read the Harvard study. It should especially be:

  • In the hands of every Flight Attendant who seeks medical attention for a uniform reaction.
  • In the hands of every airline official who is responsible for procuring new uniforms, in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

We are still fighting for the right to safe clothes that don’t cause illness for the Flight Attendants at PSA, Piedmont, Envoy, and our sisters and brothers at American. We will continue to push for the type of positive and conscientious change that we see at some airlines like Alaska and United who have committed to strong uniform programs - and are working with AFA as an important part of that commitment.

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