Are you Allergic to Work?

Man blowing nose

Every weekday Joseph O’Neill, a marketing communications manager in New York City, suffered terrible allergies at work. “Our office is located in downtown Manhattan, so there's naturally no shortage of potential irritants, but I began to find myself sneezing uncontrollably throughout the day, but only when I was sitting at my desk,” says O’Neill. “It got so bad that my work began to suffer.”

O’Neill suspected his workplace was making him sick since during weekends and off time he was fine, but what could he do about it? 1

Are you allergic to work? Is it the building itself, a colleague's perfume, the plant in the cubicle next to yours? Here’s how to figure out your office allergy triggers and what you can do about them.

The Scope of the Problem

Workplace exposure to fumes, gases or dust are responsible for 11 percent of asthma worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). What’s more, 24.5 million missed workdays nationwide annually are attributable to occupational asthma. And that’s not including all the sniffing, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eye effects of allergies. Workers also can suffer from fatigue. Frequent activation of the immune system from allergic triggers can sap the body's energy. In essence, all that sneezing and coughing is exhausting.2

Become an Allergy Sleuth

“Suspect workplace allergy if your symptoms worsen during the workday and improve on weekends and vacations,” says Robert Weiss, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon who established the CT Center for Advanced ENT Care (CT ENT) and is on staff at Norwalk Hospital in Conn.

Workplace triggers are many. Common among them include exposure to animal dander, wood dust, cleaners and disinfectants, chemicals and fumes.

Mold can be ubiquitous in the workplace. Often it's easier to detect it in the home than at the office. Poorly ventilated, close quarters can predispose mold exposure. Plus, perfumes, plants, and dust mites are commonplace triggers, and animal dander and cigarette smoke can be trapped on a co-worker's clothing and set off allergies in susceptible employees. Start with investigating some of the obvious ones and work outward to less apparent causes.3

Weiss recommends trying a non-sedating over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine such as Allegra or Claritin. “If these do not provide total relief, ask your doctor about a nasal steroid spray. There are also non-sedating oral medications that help control allergies, such as Singulair,” he says.4

“If you suspect allergy in the workplace, you should obtain a proper evaluation from a qualified allergy specialist,” says Weiss. This usually includes testing to determine sensitivity to potential exposure to workplace allergens and correlation to your work environment.

What Else you can do to Combat Workplace Allergies

“Make sure your work area is well ventilated and has proper humidity to minimize molds--less than 50 percent humidity for an indoor office,” says Weiss. The work area should be cleaned and dusted regularly.

Office and school environments are often riddled with dust and allergens. There are certain ‘neglected areas’ in an office that rarely get cleaned. Computers and office equipment in general are magnets for dust. Other common and overlooked sources of dust at the office are plugs, computer cords, base boards, surfaces at floor-to-wall junctures, window blind louvers, trim work, window wells, underneath office furniture and heating units, fabric on upholstered office furniture, and cubical partitions.

“If you are suffering allergies at work, check these places in your office, have them cleaned, and see if the problem clears up. If not, your company should have a professional conduct an indoor air quality test, especially if other employees are suffering. It could be a problem with the HVAC system or vents,” says Robert Weitz, a certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental Group, which provides environmental testing services to commercial and residential customers throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.5

One recognizable cause of office place allergies are renovations. Renovations can release dust into the air, also carpet glue, new furniture odors and other aspects of office remodeling can set off allergies.

Disasters can also turn a building toxic. After pest infestations, floods or fires, allergy triggers can come on with a vengeance. Check to make sure no such event has occurred.6

O’Neill eventually found his culprit through blind luck--a lemon tree that had been growing in his office (and recently flowered) was removed and his sneezing stopped. “I absolutely tried to figure it our beforehand, and I had even suspected that the tree might have been the culprit. My advice to others would be to pay attention to when your symptoms start, and then to see if you can make any clear associations with things in your environment.” 7

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can require employers to make reasonable changes in the workplace to accommodate a worker's allergies. Allergies which developed at work often fall under workers’ compensation laws.

“If an individual has a legitimate allergy to conditions of the workplace, they may consider discussing the situation with their treating physician, getting a doctor's note, and requesting a reasonable accommodation from the employer to be transferred to a different office or alternative working conditions,” says Lindsey Wagner, an associate with Cathleen Scott & Associates, P.A., with offices in Jupiter and West Palm Beach, Fla.

The law requires an employer to engage in an interactive process to determine whether the request is reasonable and can be accommodated.8

With a bit of sleuthing you may be able to discover what is setting off your allergies at work and take the proper steps to improve or eliminate your triggers.

Sources not cited or linked to above:

1 Joseph O’Neill email interview, 12/5/14

2, 3, 4 Robert Weiss, MD email interview, all allergy info, 12/8/14

5, 6 Email interview Robert Weitz, RTK Environmental Group, 12/8/14

7 Joseph O’Neill email interview, 12/5/14

8 Email interview, Lindsey Wagner, 12/5/14

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