Something to sneeze at: Allergies costly for employers and employers

Katie Smith
Katie Smith

Spring is in the air. Flowers are blooming, peach trees are budding and everything is flourishing. That includes the sneezes, wheezes and itchy irritation from seasonal allergies.

Allergies can make getting through the workday a task in itself and cause lost focus and productivity. By one estimate, 19 million employed adults suffer from allergic rhinitis — inflammation of the nasal lining due to exposure to allergens. Workplace allergic rhinitis occurs when an employee experiences hypersensitivity from exposure to allergens in the workplace that trigger an immune response. This reaction includes such symptoms as congestion, runny nose, sneezing, rash and in some serious cases even anaphylactic shock or respiratory disorders. 

Allergic rhinitis is associated with both direct and indirect costs to the workplace. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, direct health care costs total about $4.5 billion a year. Symptomatic employees are absent from work an average of 3.6 days and off task 2.3 hours a day when they’re at work.

Some occupations pose a higher risk of potential exposure to irritants than others. The range of prospective allergens in the workplace is extensive. Occupational exposures can include common chemicals for cleaning and personal hygiene solutions; such natural agents as animal dander, dust mites, insect bites and stings, molds and pollens.

When an employer discovers an employee is allergic to a substance in the workplace, employers are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate the employee to prevent adverse health effects.

Reasonable modifications or adjustments to a job that enables qualified individuals to enjoy an equal employment opportunity include:

Identify allergens: Knowing what triggers an allergic reaction allows the allergen to be addressed or reduced. If an employee knows he’s allergic to pet dander or pollen, for example, the employer can station him away from those irritant areas. It’s also wise to have a plan in place for the allergic employee in case exposure does occur — knowing whom to contact and what actions to take could be vital for that employee’s health and well-being.

Provide protective equipment: Providing protective equipment to employees who can’t avoid exposure can help lessen or prevent exposure. Providing specific protection for the sensitive individual can range from powered air-purifying respirators to protective clothing or barrier creams. For example, various cleaning fluids release fumes into the air that can irritate lungs and cause respiratory problems. A simple modification for an employer to make would be to provide a face mask to prevent or reduce the employee from inhaling the fumes from the cleaning product.

Product or process substitution: Product substitution involves the use of an alternate formula for the chemical or material used to eliminate the potential allergen. There’s a large population of individuals who’re allergic to latex, so substituting latex gloves with a hypoallergenic alternative alleviates possible adverse reactions. In process substitution, employers adopt a method of carrying out the work task that lessens the likelihood of allergen exposure. Substitutions could present added benefits to the company in areas of cost savings, waste disposal and less potential liability concerns.

Maintenance: Common fungal allergens associated with moisture problems in buildings or with occupations in agriculture can be a major player in workplace allergic rhinitis. Employers should regularly check filters in the ventilation system and the cleanliness of the workplace. Requesting recurrent carpet cleaning and dusting and wiping down workstations can reduce and control dander, dust mites, molds, pollen and several other allergens found in the workplace.

Allergies constitute significant contributors to the total costs of health-related absenteeism for businesses. Identifying areas where employers can intervene to accommodate allergic employees and improve employee health can in turn increase productivity and maximize resources.