Clothing manufacturers in Oklahoma and around the country use resins containing formaldehyde to give their fabrics durability and wrinkle resistance. The low levels of formaldehyde found in clothing rarely pose a health risk, but exposure to the chemical can trigger severe allergic reactions in some people. In 2018, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health noticed that the number of health complaints submitted by Alaska Airlines flight attendants rose sharply when they were issued with new uniforms.
Flight attendant uniforms
American Airlines faced a similar surge in health complaints when it issued its flight attendants with new uniforms in 2016. When symptoms including rashes, breathlessness, lightheadedness and swollen eyes were linked to chemicals in the new uniforms, American Airlines allowed flight attendants to wear their old uniforms or select appropriate outfits at Macy’s or JC Penny locations. American Airlines has since switched to a different uniform supplier.
Product liability lawsuit
More than 400 flight attendants have taken legal action against the uniform maker that once supplied American Airlines and still supplies other carriers, but legal observers have been paying especially close attention to a case filed by a group of flight attendants in California. In October 2023, arguments were heard in what is seen as a bellwether trial for the group. The Alameda County jury that heard those arguments awarded four of the most seriously injured plaintiffs more than $1 million after determining that their uniforms were dangerous products that substantially contributed to their harm.
Manufacturers are required to do all that they reasonably can to ensure their products are safe, and they are expected to be particularly vigilant when they use chemicals that can cause severe allergic reactions. The outcome of a product liability lawsuit filed against a uniform supplier in California shows that manufacturers can be held financially responsible when their products cause an unusually high number of allergic reactions.