After I graduated from high school, my dad got me a job working in a factory for the summer before college. I developed an allergic reaction to the lubricant they used, and the company’s doctor told me I could no longer work there.
Since then, many laws have been passed to protect employees’ rights, and handling an employee’s allergies is much different today.
Allergies are a bigger problem than ever:
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, allergies are the 5th leading chronic disease in America, affecting about 50 million of us, which is 1 in 5 people in the U.S. Allergies have been on the rise in America since the early 1980s, impacting all demographic groups.
- 40 million Americans have indoor/outdoor allergies
- 7% of people have skin allergies
- 6% have food and/or drug allergies
- 4% have latex allergies & insect allergies.
Allergies are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act:
In 2008, amendments were made to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which expanded the definition of a disability. This expansion has made it possible for allergies to be covered under the ADA in some cases, when they substantially limit a major activity.
So how might this affect an employee in the workplace, and how might an employer provide a reasonable accommodation?
Dealing with allergies in the workplace:
While it can sometimes be difficult to determine if the cause of an allergic reaction is present in the workplace, at the employee’s home, or occurring someplace else in their daily life, it is important to address any possible triggers present in the business.
The first place to start is for the employee to determine the cause of their allergy.
Sometimes this is obvious; for instance, if they put on their latex gloves and then get a rash on their hands. And sometimes it requires a doctor to do a series of tests to determine why they are having a runny nose and watery eyes.
Once they’ve identified their allergies, and notified you of them, you do have a duty to try to accommodate your employee, if it’s reasonable.
Typical accommodations for allergies at work:
Typical types of accommodations can include the following:
Latex allergies are often resolved with alternative types of non-latex gloves.
Many people are allergic to fragrances, so it’s not uncommon to have a scent-free workplace policy.
Molds are a common source of allergies. Removing plants from the office can remove a mold source.
Pet dander allergies:
Pet dander is another common allergen, so restricting animals in the workplace may be a necessary accommodation.
Dust mite allergies:
Dust mites and cleaning chemicals can also be a source of irritant. Changing your air filters, increasing your cleaning efforts, and changing the products you use may all help.
Trying to keep all employees happy, while protecting the health of your allergic one, can be a delicate balancing act. Can telecommuting help to solve the problem? Is a more private office space available that would provide some protections? A HEPA air cleaner may also help to ease your employee’s discomfort.
Allergies may be covered by GINA:
Keep in mind that allergies have a genetic component, so not only does the ADA play into this, but GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) might also.
Your employee has the right to keep their medical information private under HIPAA, so while you accommodate their needs, you must do so with discretion.
The cost of allergies in the workplace:
There’s no doubt that dealing with allergies is an expensive proposition in America, costing our economy nearly $14.5 billion a year.
Hay fever alone is the 5th most common chronic disease, and a major contributor to absenteeism and presenteeism, which translates to 4 million missed or lost workdays a year.
Clearly, it’s in our best interest to work with employees to resolve allergy issues, so they can focus on the tasks at hand!