Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009; 5:44 PM
The new blue uniforms issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide may have a snazzy look, but they have become a major irritant for some of those employees.
The new uniforms are causing rashes and other irritations among transportation security officers who screen passengers at airports, according to the union representing the workers.
"We're hearing from hundreds of TSOs that this is an issue," said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. Most of the complaints have been for skin rashes, but they have also included runny or bloody noses, lightheadeness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, union officials say.
The union blames formaldehyde, which is a chemical byproduct of the permanent-press finish applied by clothing manufacturers to prevent mildew and stains.
A spokesman for TSA said that the problem is not serious or widespread, and that few workers have complained. The agency said that tests done on the uniforms have not found unacceptable levels of formaldehyde or any other chemical.
"So far, a handful of officers have reported minor irritations," said Christopher White, a TSA spokesman.
In response to the complaints, the manufacturer, VF Solutions of Nashville, used an independent laboratory to test shirts worn by complaining officers as well as previously unworn uniforms. "Each and every uniform tested was found to be well under acceptable limits for a number of substances known to cause irritation, including formaldehyde," the TSA said in a statement.
Neal Waters, vice president of public safety for VF Solutions, said the formaldehyde present on the TSA shirts and pants was well below the industry standard of 75 parts per million. "There wasn't enough present to even register on the tests," he said.
The material used in the new uniforms, which are 65 percent polyester and 35 percent cotton, is "industry standard and used in hundreds of thousands of uniforms across the country and the world," according to TSA.
VF Solutions has produced 70 million shirts with the same fabric without previous complaints, according to Waters. "It's not a new fabric," he said. "It's used by a lot of workers."
All TSA workers have the option of requesting a 100 percent cotton uniform, White said.
"That's something that hadn't been happening," said Milly Rodriguez, a health and safety specialist with AFGE. "If they're doing that now, that's a really good outcome."
Peter Winch, an AFGE national organizer who helped survey TSA employees about the uniforms, estimated that between 200 and 300 workers complained about the new uniforms. "We've heard it from a number of airports, so we feel it represents a widespread problem," he added. Employees at airports in Baltimore, St. Louis, Tampa, San Francisco, Oakland and Fort Lauderdale are among those reporting problems, according to the union.
The reactions reported by TSA employees "are typical with formaldehyde in products," said Rodriguez.
The new uniforms began being distributed early last year and were in use nationwide at 450 airports by 50,000 officers by September, according to White.
All-cotton uniforms have been provided to 50 officers to replace the new uniforms. By comparison, in the six years the white uniforms were in use, 71 officers requested all-cotton alternatives, he said.
AFGE, which represents tens of thousands of Department of Homeland Security employees, sent a letter to TSA Administrator Kip Hawley in late December demanding that the complaints be looked into as a possible violations of Department of Labor regulations.
White said TSA first became aware of the issue several months ago, "long before AFGE contacted us."
The agency "immediately worked with VF Solutions to find out what was going on," White added. TSA is working with Labor to conduct an independent government assessment of the VF Solution testing, he said.
White said the new uniforms were designed with input from TSA employees and are intended to present a more professional look, as well as provide better wear than the old ones. "We're very proud of the new uniforms," said White. "We've heard a very strong reaction from passengers. They like the look. It looks much more professional."
Unlike the old uniforms, White added, the new ones come with "a real gold badge."