The headline of a recent Fox News story screamed of ‘toxic’ uniforms that American Airlines employees were subjected to a number of years ago. Get past the headline to read the actual story, and it’s clear that the uniforms the well-known airline came up were not ideal to fostering good employer-employee relationships.
Before getting into the actual story itself, it is important to note that whether or not the uniforms are truly toxic can only be determined by way of scientific analysis. The dictionary definition of ‘toxic’ refers to something that is poisonous to the extent of posing a serious risk of death or debilitation. The American Airlines uniforms are by no means poisonous. However, they have allegedly cause some very unpleasant reactions in some staff members.
Whether toxic or not, it’s never a good thing to have uniforms that cause employees to experience adverse physical reactions. Even if a reaction is nothing more than being physically uncomfortable while at work, it’s not a good situation for employees to be in. That’s why it’s so important for companies to bend over backwards to accommodate employee comfort when designing new uniforms.
American Airlines introduced their new uniforms in September 2016 to much fanfare. The uniforms represented the first significant change to what staff members wore in 30 years. Unfortunately, employees began to complain about physical reactions to the uniforms within weeks of distribution.
Staff members started complaining of eye irritation, burning skin, headaches, rashes, itching, and hives. All the symptoms appeared to be an allergic reaction which, according to the airline, was the likely cause. American officials claimed wool allergies were the culprit.
The airline claims the uniforms had undergone three rounds of testing prior to release. The materials used to make them were all found to be fine. American Airlines workers sued, but the original suit was dismissed based on insufficient evidence. Attorneys for the plaintiffs amended the lawsuit and resubmitted it this past October (2018).
Where all this will end up is anyone’s guess. But from news stories, it appears as though American Airlines pilots, flight attendants, and customer service staff are still wearing the uniforms today.
If there’s a lesson to be learned by other companies, it’s this: designing new uniforms is not something to be taken lightly. Assuming the court determines American Airlines isn’t guilty of giving workers toxic uniforms, that still doesn’t change the fact that employees are uncomfortable wearing them. It doesn’t do the airline any good to keep hanging on to uniforms employees have such negative feelings about.
Uniform design should always take employee input into account, according to Alsco. As the company that started uniform rental back in the 1800s, Alsco says that it’s critical to give workers uniforms they are pleased with. Any thoughts or feelings they have about their uniforms – for bad or good – will be reflected in the way employees work.
This is not to say that employee input would have made a difference in the materials American Airlines chose for their new uniforms. But let’s assume the culprit in this case is a wool allergy. Did American Airlines survey employees to find out if anyone had allergies? And if not, would such a survey have avoided the whole issue altogether?
Are the new American Airlines uniforms truly toxic? By the dictionary definition of the word, probably not. But they are irritating enough to some employees to have sparked a lawsuit. Certainly there is a lesson to be learned here among other companies looking to replace their uniforms.
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