Flying the Itchy Skies
December 27, 2016 9:35 AM   Subscribe

American Airlines issued new uniforms to its front-line employees in September, the first such redesign in decades. Almost immediately, though, flight attendants reported hives and headaches, and despite AA claiming that three separate tests had revealed no issues, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants has filed a grievance (2-page PDF) demanding that employees be given the option to wear the old uniforms. AA executives have responded by wearing the new uniforms themselves. Union representatives are not amused.
posted by Etrigan (41 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
That they thought "wool-based" uniforms was the correct direction in the first place displays a worrying lack of consideration.
posted by Krazor at 9:48 AM on December 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


"I think I may be allergic to peanuts"

"No you're not, peanuts are perfectly safe. Look, I'm eating them!"

Assholes.
posted by STFUDonnie at 9:48 AM on December 27, 2016 [64 favorites]


Yeah, stunts like the management wearing the uniform never go over well.

I've had managers tell me how simple my job is. Managers that have never actually done it day in and day out with no option of stopping the pretend on my own whim. Yeah doing the lowest level menial tasks for twenty minutes feels like a break for you. For me it is what I squeeze in between doing all the other stuff I have to do. Stuff that I will never get a thanks for doing well.
posted by Monday at 9:49 AM on December 27, 2016 [21 favorites]


Such bad luck by American, would seem to be almost statistically impossible to hire that many poeple with such severe wool (and cotton too!) allergies. I wonder if there is some correlation bewteen being a natural fibre allergy sufferer and wanting to grow up a flight attendent.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:59 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


The common lore in knitting circles (and this seems to stand up based on what I've seen) is that people usually aren't allergic to the wool itself but to the chemicals used to process the fabric.

I've noticed I react to the clothes I try on at some of the chain stores (a starching aid they're using now?). So it may not be the fiber itself that's bothering people.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 10:08 AM on December 27, 2016 [28 favorites]


Synthetic fibers area a fire hazard in a plane crash. I know will is problematic for people but it's safer in a fire!
posted by crush-onastick at 10:08 AM on December 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


It could also have to do with how the fabric was treated, the chemicals the uniforms have been dry-cleaned in, maybe some sort of special flame-retardant treatment....

Or, on preview, what steady-state strawberry said.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:10 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Good call, Greg_Ace: I am not a fabric expert, but a flame retardant (or dyeing agent?) probably make the most sense.

And, yeah: synthetic fabrics generally either melt or burn. Wool scorches. But it seems like this should have been a solvable problem.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 10:24 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


On the one hand, yeah, not everyone is allergic to peanuts. On the other hand, there exist people on this earth who claim to be allergic to WiFi. I don't blame management for being skeptical here, especially since this seems like a problem that should have a reasonably simple, objective solution:

Dear Clothing Manufacturer: Please provide a list of what is in/on the new uniforms that was not in/on the old ones?

Is there a known allergen in that list? Boom. (A la peanuts).

If there isn't, then look at what other clothing has the things on the list. Survey flight attendants to see who wears the other clothing. If this were a public health thing, and not an employer/employee thing, I'd recommend a study comparing the reactions of folks in the allergic-to-uniforms and not allergic-to-uniforms groups to wearing clothing that does/does not have the stuff on the list.

I mean yeah, maybe the "wearing the uniforms" thing is silly, but it is at least a step in the "we don't know of anything about these uniforms that could be causing these problems, even after having them tested, so we want to show you that even though we totes bought the cheapest fabric we could get away with we do draw the line at poisoning our employees via fabric" direction
posted by sparklemotion at 10:29 AM on December 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm having trouble imagining a scenario where the employees would just make this up, unless management/union relations were already such a shitshow it's just a chance to give management a black eye. Or a "why wasn't I consulted" tantrum. In either case, wearing the uniforms is not going to do anything useful.

The last article mentions Alaska had the same issue with the same manufacturer in 2012, how was that resolved? Maybe management is just trying to push through some power-of-the-imagination non-issue? The employees heard about the Alaska thing, but not the resolution, and now are worrying themselves into a reaction? That's still mismanagement. You bring up the issue yourself up front, reassure employees that it's been addressed and that anyone who has an issue will be accommodated with an alternate uniform.

Then you make the alternate uniform so ugly and fiddly that people really have to be committed to their story that they can't wear the normal one /s

posted by ctmf at 10:42 AM on December 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm having trouble imagining a scenario where the employees would just make this up

This could be total ignorance on my part, but the described symptoms jibe with my layman's understanding of psychosomatic illnesses/nocebo effects. I could totally see people hating the uniform enough to get hives from wearing it. Especially once stories start to spread about how wearing the uniform causes hives.

I agree on the mismanagement thing though, this feels like something that could have been nipped in the bud by 1.) having a backup plan with the uniform roll-out, so that when this happened they could 2.) immediately announce that the uniforms were optional and that they were getting to the bottom of this. Then 3.) after the testing and certifications from the manufacturer, put out a press release and bring the uniforms back.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:53 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Really tired of non-doctors and non-that-person's-doctors diagnosing psychosomatic illnesses over the internet.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:04 AM on December 27, 2016 [43 favorites]


Also, awkward if you're a low-level manager who gets an adverse reaction to the new uniform upper management really wants to be fine.
posted by ctmf at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


And then, awkward again if they pull the uniforms because they believe the managers but wouldn't take the employees' word for it. Way to team-build there.
posted by ctmf at 11:17 AM on December 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


Well, now I know why they were all so crabby on my flights in October/November...
posted by Katemonkey at 11:22 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I can wear something wool next to my skin for 0.5 seconds before I start itching uncontrollably. I have never tried this with untreated wool, so maybe it is the stuff they use and not the wool itself. But wearing anything made of wool from a store is an itchy trip to hell for me, to the point where my mother would yell at me because I refused to wear something nice, pretty, expensive and made of wool that she had bought me.

It's not a mild itch, either. It's a won't-stop-prickling-you feeling, like wearing a burlap bag (or a hair shirt, I suppose) against your skin. And yeah, where it rubbed my skin would get irritated with little welts.

But I'm sure it was all in my head! Silly me.
posted by emjaybee at 11:23 AM on December 27, 2016 [23 favorites]


I bought a toque from Roots while in Canada and the first time I wore it turned my forehead bright red (so Canadian!).

I've been stabbed by Opuntia glochids and found them less itchy than this damn hat.
posted by srboisvert at 11:29 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I can wear something wool next to my skin for 0.5 seconds before I start itching uncontrollably.

SERIOUSLY. Even the fanciest, "softest" of wool feels like a nightmare to me. Mohair, merino wool, all of it. Unbearable.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2016 [8 favorites]



The irritation coming from something used to treat the wool would at least explain why I'm fine wearing some wool clothes and some drive me bonkers. Once I had a wool hat that would make my head itch like crazy within minutes of putting the thing on. Last winter one of my regular hats was wool and it was fine.
I've found the same thing with sweaters at various times.
posted by Jalliah at 11:35 AM on December 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I can't use animal wools (not lamb, not llama, not goat, not angora! cat hair's probably OK) nor can I use lanolin-based products. The skin that touches it is first incredibly itchy (if you ever accidentally picked up a piece of pink insulation or brushed one of those hairy cactuses, it's like that) and then gets hives. I frankly don't understand people who think wool is soft, but there are people who don' t understand why I like cilantro, so...there's an ass for every seat, as it were.

I can wear a wool sweater if I have a shirt on underneath acting as a barrier, though, and I've got a wool blanket in a cover that does OK. Like, how hard is it to offer a workaround? An undershirt or a linen option or something.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:37 AM on December 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


The union is reporting a lot problems besides itching, including unspecified endocrine issues. And some crew are reporting the same problems with their cotton replacements.

I'd imagine the execs who chose these uniforms felt like they were being generous. Their business suits are all wool. Wool is, if anything, a material I'd associate with high status.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


I can wear something wool next to my skin for 0.5 seconds before I start itching uncontrollably.

Yeah, I'll second this.
posted by flug at 12:05 PM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


AA executives have responded by wearing the new uniforms themselves. Union representatives are not amused.

Reading this, all I can see in my head is the news footage from when I was a kid of John Gummer trying to feed his four-year-old daughter a beefburger.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


a starching aid they're using now?

Or sizing.
Different types of water soluble polymers called textile sizing agents/chemicals such as modified starch, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), acrylates are used to protect the yarn. Also wax is added to reduce the abrasiveness of the warp yarns.
. . .
After the weaving process the fabric is desized (washed).
My mom did a lot of sewing, and several times mentioned having to wash the sizing out of new fabric and clothes.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:21 PM on December 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


Well, now I know why they were all so crabby on my flights in October/November...

American is so awful that I would be wary of pinning it on any one cause.
posted by indubitable at 12:42 PM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Wool is highly absorbent -- as witness its dye-ability, its oil-ability, and the capacity of some varieties to absorb a third of their dry weight of water w/o feeling wet.

My guess is these new uniforms are picking up more than the old uniforms of the brew of toxic chemicals which is virtually a standard feature of normal cabin air, and causing higher levels of skin exposure.
posted by jamjam at 12:56 PM on December 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I love wool as a fabric, but I would never fly with wool.
posted by corb at 1:20 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'd imagine the execs who chose these uniforms felt like they were being generous. Their business suits are all wool.

right? i'm sure they thought it was a fantastically brilliant and magnanimous gesture and it did not once occur to them to ponder the whole "well, my $4,000 bespoke wool suits are incredibly comfortable and stylish, so it is impossible to comprehend that our employees are not responding well to these mass produced uniforms provided by the lowest bidder" thing.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:44 PM on December 27, 2016 [13 favorites]


This seems like the sort of paragraph you'd maybe put higher in your article about clothing complaints:
The new uniforms were made by Twin Hill, a subsidiary of Men’s Wearhouse. It is the same manufacturer that made the uniforms for Alaska Airlines employees, sparking similar complaints in 2012 about health problems related to the clothing.
(From the end of last article.)
posted by lucidium at 1:45 PM on December 27, 2016 [17 favorites]


I can just see the executive types having a rare Kobe cut at midday in the duds at Del Frisco's Double Eagle. 'I literally do not understand what they're complaining about! We paid almost $67.84 per unit for these!'

A pause as the double-whiskey and coke clinks in the air conditioning.

'I know. Ingratitude!'
posted by mrdaneri at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


I doubt we're taliking about itchy "wool" as in cozy sweaters or merino pullovers. This is most likely the same sort of polished wool most not-completely-polyester suits are made of. This does not, of course, discount the probable cause being chemical treating of some sort.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:42 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the cheery scarf is mandatory for women, or can they wear ties too? Or, for that matter, are the scarves available for comfortable-in-their-masculinity men?
posted by ccaajj aka chrispy at 5:23 PM on December 27, 2016


A quick search suggests UPS drivers have had similar ongoing issues with Twin Hill manufactured uniforms.

I'd be very curious about the working conditions for Twin Hill employees.
posted by E. Whitehall at 6:05 PM on December 27, 2016 [18 favorites]


Jesus, yeah. Especially if the problem is (as it seems likely to be) an additive or treatment rather than the wool itself.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:05 PM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is bringing back terrible memories of marching band.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:33 PM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not sure if I am reading this right, but the article says that some are reporting that the uniforms made of polyester or cotton are also causing the symptoms.

If so, how is wool responsible for the health issues alone? Also, why is management being trolled for this?

I suspect that some chemicals that the manufacturer is using for all clothes in the factory or even packaging may be the real culprit.
posted by theobserver at 12:37 AM on December 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I could totally see people hating the uniform enough to get hives from wearing it. Especially once stories start to spread about how wearing the uniform causes hives.

Aside from the unlikelihood of this happening to at least three different companies being supplied uniforms by the same manufacturer (Alaska Airlines and UPS in the past), does it actually matter? If your uniforms are causing serious health issues in your staff, is that somehow okay if it's due to a nocebo effect? Health problems are health problems. If they're widespread in your staff because of the uniforms, it doesn't matter if it's 'all in their heads' or whatever, they're happening and need addressing.
posted by Dysk at 12:58 AM on December 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


I would guess that 90% of the people who think they are allergic to wool, etc. have just had the normal reaction to all coarser wools. They're itchy. You will scratch. It's not psychosomatic, it's not chemical, it's a physical phenomenon, caused by the ends of the fiber sticking out from the strand and poking you. Mohair? Itchy. Lambswool? Itchy. You need to get to a very fine diameter of fiber before the fiber no longer itches you. Merino, Leicester, alpaca, cashmere. (Alternatively, in a felted wool, as can be found in many wool blankets, the strands have matted together as a result of being agitated with hot water; the ends have interlocked as part of this process and so there are fewer of them to stick out to poke you.) A very tightly woven fabric such as is found in wool suits ought also to be minimally itchy. The uniforms would be of that nature, I'd think, though the sweater depicted could be a coarser knit. The coverage also doesn't say if the uniforms are lined, which would affect itchiness by interposing a barrier between skin and fabric.

The situation does seem ripe for nocebo and projection, especially with some people reporting problems with cotton clothing, as well. Itching is a complex and subjective phenomenon that requires considerable "interpretation" of stimuli by the nervous system, and dissatisfaction and anxiety producing an increased sensitivity to discomfort isn't surprising. On the other hand, it's hardly unimaginable that a company churning out cheap uniforms might get its raw materials from the local toxic waste dump.
posted by praemunire at 1:11 AM on December 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


As someone with actual skin allergies and hives, I can absolutely assure you there is a difference between itching (like that caused by rough wools) and hives. Hives are not subjective - it's a very noticeable, visible histamine reaction. You turn red and swell up in lumps. If it's really bad, the skin splits and weeps (whether you scratch it or not). It's 'just' itching in a sense, but holy hell is it incomparable to what you know itching as if you haven't got a similar condition yourself. It's like comparing broken bones grinding to a mild headache or lightly stubbing your toe. Yes, both are pain, but no, they are not at all similar.
posted by Dysk at 1:36 AM on December 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


You need to get to a very fine diameter of fiber before the fiber no longer itches you. Merino, Leicester, alpaca, cashmere.

Ha ha ha ha ha! I am laughing at the thought of cashmere not being itchy. The thought of cashmere being a luxury fabric has always baffled me-- the thought of wearing it to me is the equivalent of wearing a hair shirt for punishment.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:53 AM on December 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Is it even possible to find out what chemicals are embedded in the clothing considering that after manufacturing it's probably all piled into a metal shipping container with god knows what else and fumigated with whatever to kill any exotic beasts and insects that may like to nest in said clothing while on an ocean cruise?
posted by WeekendJen at 8:37 AM on December 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


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