Why be sensitive to sensitivities?
So your company re-branded and decided to invest in a new corporate uniform. It’s the first new uniform in decades and it’s been three years in the making – designing, producing and testing -with an established uniform supplier. Finally, the highly anticipated uniform is released amid great excitement… and then, 400 staff break out in hives, complaining of itching, headaches, swollen eyes and other allergy symptoms.
This is what happened to one of the world’s largest carriers American Airlines. At first, it was widely assumed to be a wool allergy but after some staff, who wore the polyester version of the uniform, also showed symptoms, the company has had to run further tests to ascertain the cause.
Designing uniforms with allergies in mind
While it appears that American Airlines did go to reasonable lengths to ensure their new uniforms met OEKO-TEX standards, the case highlights the degree of attention and consideration companies and their uniform suppliers need to pay to their employees’ medical conditions and comfort factors when planning and designing a new uniform.
Allergies and sensitivities are partly a compliance issue in the workplace but in part, it’s an employer being caring and showing empathy by taking the necessary precautions to prevent their employees suffering any unnecessary discomfort at work.
Forewarned is forearmed: have you asked the right questions?
Top uniform suppliers will work with companies to engage employees at the start of the process to identify what staff concerns need to be accommodated. This could be related to medical conditions like allergies, but increasingly you need to take account of people’s lifestyle choices. For instance, you may have staff who are vegan and will not wear animal-tested products or animal skins. When choosing your supplier, check that they have the capabilities and flexibility to undertake an employee engagement study and help you ask the right questions.
What can cause allergic reactions to staff uniforms?
When choosing fabrics, dyes, treatments and accessories, discuss your choices with your uniform suppliers to reduce the chance of sensitivity or reactions to workwear. Formaldehyde, nickel and latex are just a few of the things commonly found in corporate uniforms that could be problematic.
If you want wrinkle-free clothes, remember that the treatment contains small amounts of formaldehyde that can cause skin irritation in some people. Nickel used in zips and buckles is a known allergen and can cause allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). In the last decade or two, there’s been an increase in allergic reactions to latex, found in elastic fabrics or elasticated waistbands. While you may want to embrace more breathable fabrics, you should also check the amount of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in their production as these can be carcinogenic.
Reduce risks and provide alternatives
There are many things you can do to minimise the possibility of allergic reactions. Your uniform supplier can suggest various options to suit your employees’ needs and your budget. You can look at creating bespoke fabrics or selecting fabrics that have not been treated with allergen-inducing chemicals. This has to apply to items in the entire uniform wardrobe, including outerwear and accessories. Another option is to fully line uniforms with polyester to reduce the chances of allergens getting in direct contact with the skin. Also consider providing an alternative uniform for employees more prone to allergies.
Testing and auditing
Of course, having a uniform supplier who can trace the source of the fabrics they use will mean you can more easily guarantee the quality of the production process. You should also insist that your supplier uses textiles that have been properly tested to national or international standards and can provide evidence of this.
Historically, companies have been able to apply a “one size fits all” approach to work uniforms but nowadays, this simply isn’t an option. It is no longer acceptable to expect employees to suffer in silence and the best talents are increasingly looking at how well they are treated, when choosing between employers. While allergic reactions cannot entirely be eliminated, there are a number of ways in which companies can work together with their uniform suppliers to minimise sensitivities and demonstrate they value the comfort of their staff. No headaches for your team – or for you!