Delta is swooping in to design new uniforms for employees after flight attendants and ground workers complain of health problems


Delta Air Lines said this week that it would design new uniforms for 36,000 flight attendants, ticket agents, gate agents, and other customer-facing employees.

The decision to redesign the uniforms comes following scores of complaints from employees that exposure to the current uniforms was causing health problems.

“Our employees are our number one resource, and we’re listening to them,” Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta’s uniforms director, told Business Insider. “We will get this right – open and transparently.

Business Insider reported on the health issues flight attendants have experienced late last year.

Delta introduced the current uniforms, designed by Zac Posen with Lands’ End, in 2018, following several years of consultations with employees.

Shortly after that, flight attendants began noticing and reporting health problems, such as hives, respiratory problems, and hair loss, and other issues. Several flight attendants who spoke with Business Insider said they encountered high medical bills due to treatment of the alleged health complaints, or had issues with short-term disability claims.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Lands’ End filed by Delta employees.

The airline allowed employees to try an alternative garment, and eventually to wear nonuniform business clothes purchased independently – “black-and-whites,” as employees call them – on a case-by-case basis. In November, the airline began approving black-and-white requests more broadly, leading “thousands” of employees to opt for them, Dimbiloglu said.

“It’s a number that just isn’t OK,” he said, referencing employees who do not wish to wear the current uniform due to health problems or concerns. “We want our employees to feel unified and to be able to be part of the team, so we’re going to work to make that happen.”

“We haven’t been able to solve this for everyone, and that’s just not good enough for us,” he added.

Poor quality control at global suppliers can cause uniforms, which are often treated to be stain-, wrinkle-, and flame-resistant – to become contaminated with toxic chemicals, Judith Anderson, an industrial hygienist with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), told Business Insider.

The AFA-CWA is attempting to organise Delta flight attendants, who are not unionized, and has highlighted the uniform complaints as part of its campaign. The union said last year that it would test uniform pieces.

In 2019, a laboratory analysis commissioned by Delta found “no chemicals that could have been eluted (transferred) from the textile in sweat or emitted to air that could account for the rates of dermal or respiratory effects reported,” but Anderson said that did not rule out contamination, noting the inconsistency of chemicals found, and symptoms presented.

New design in 2021, and new alternative options in the interim

The airline plans to collaborate with employees to design the new uniforms – on everything from fit to design to feel. Delta says it will send surveys to all 36,000 customer-facing employees in the coming months, conduct focus groups, and send “more granular” follow-up surveys to specific subsets of employees.

The teams designing the uniforms will also liaise with Employee Involvement Groups and Frontline Involvement Teams, groups that represent employees from various remote stations, as well as Delta’s home base in Atlanta, Dimbiloglu said.

Delta aims to introduce the uniforms by the fourth quarter of 2021, but “we’re not tied to a timeline, we’re tied to getting it right.”

Dimbiloglu said that each item from the new uniforms will be tested and certified to meet the Standard 100 set by OEKO-TEX, an independent body that sets safe standards for chemical exposure and components in textiles.

In the meantime, Dimbiloglu said, Delta will offer several alternatives to employees who are currently wearing black-and-whites.

Flight attendants will have the option to wear a uniform dress that had previously only been available for ground workers, called an ACS-exclusive dress. There have not been relevant issues associated with that dress, Dimbiloglu said.

Within the next three to four months, the airline also plans to introduce a new grey uniform for women. Previously, men’s pieces have been mostly grey, while most women’s pieces have been purple. Some flight attendants that Business Insider previously spoke with said they suspected the contaminants were linked to the purple dye.

The grey pieces will be untreated, without the performance finishes, in a “non-wool” material. Each piece will meet the OEKO-TEX 100 standard and will be labelled after it’s certified.

A men’s version of the OEKO-TEX 100 grey uniform will be available this summer.

Additionally, a new white cotton blouse will be made available for women, and a shirt for men, in both short- and long-sleeved versions. The shirts, which will be untreated, will also be OEKO-TEX 100 certified.

“We applaud this step in the right direction, but encourage Delta management to take additional actions as soon as possible for the health of all Flight Attendants and to repair the damage caused for individuals,” Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA, said in a statement. “AFA will certainly offer our assistance and expertise to Delta management in new uniform sourcing to ensure a safe, healthy, durable, wearable, and secure uniform is designed and procured for Delta Flight Attendants.”

“This isn’t just about our brand, it’s about our people,” Dimbiloglu reiterated. “We don’t want to have a group of our people who are left not on-board.”