TSA workers report rashes from uniforms

January 5, 2009

If that TSA worker rifling through your vacation souvenirs looks cranky, be patient. It could be his uniform.

Some Transportation Security Administration workers are reporting severe skin rashes, lightheadedness, swelling and redness in and around the eyes and lips as a result of the blue uniforms TSA officers started wearing this summer, according to the union representing the workers. The uniforms were intended to give the nation's 43,000 TSA officers a more professional look as they search for contraband at airports and harbors.

"This is something we've seen at airports around the country," said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers.
According to workers who have seen their doctors, the problems are caused by the formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process of the uniforms. Formaldehyde is also used by clothing makers to prevent mildew and keep fabric stain-and-wrinkle free.

Workers have noticed that uniforms imported from Mexico do not seem to cause rashes, as opposed to uniforms from Honduras.

The AFGE said some managers have refused to process workers' compensation claims.

"This is unacceptable," said AFGE president John Gage. "Employees who are allergic to the chemical have a right to file a workers' compensation claim."

The TSA said that it has tested uniform shirts, including specific shirts found to irritate officers, using an independent, third-party lab, and that every uniform was found to be under acceptable limits for irritating substances, including formaldehyde.

The TSA also says that irritation complaints about the new uniforms are significantly less than complaints about the old white uniform shirt. An alternate, 100 percent cotton uniform is available.

AFGE is demanding that TSA tell clothing contractor VF Solutions to recall and replace the uniforms, which are still under warranty. A spokesperson for VF could not be reached for comment. The union is asking that workers be allowed to wear their old, white uniforms.

One Midway Airport officer, who asked not to be named, said he had not heard of anyone at Midway getting sick from their new uniforms.

But he had heard complaints about shoddy workmanship -- the seams toward the bottoms of some uniform pants are coming apart, and the blue, military-style stripe that runs down the length of the trousers bunches up after a few washings. This is a problem because TSA workers are only given a limited allowance to buy uniforms.

Nevertheless, the Midway officer said that he liked the new uniforms better than the blander old ones.

"It makes us stick out and makes us look more presentable," the officer said.

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