PhotoJokes aside, some people really are allergic to their jobs. But it's not their duties that make them sick – its the allergens that lurk within the workplace.

It's not limited to a few professions or a few reactions. Occupational allergies can occur when a worker is exposed to a substance or substances that cause him or her to have an allergic reaction.The reactions can be minor annoyances or life threatening attacks.

The allergies may be set off by environmental allergens already in the workplace, such as mold in a water damaged office building. Sometimes, work-related activities expose workers to allergens from materials they come into contact with because of their work.

And while allergic attacks are usually brief episodes, long-term exposure to allergens can result in conditions like asthma for some people.

Sometimes, a delayed reaction

“An allergic reaction may occur when an allergen comes in contact with a worker through common exposure routes such as skin contact, inhalation or ingestion,” said Franco Seif, President of Clark Seif Clark (CSC), an environmental testing firm. “Quite often they will have a reaction within a short time period, but this is not always the case and the reaction may be delayed.”

In fact, repeated exposures to the allergen may transform a slight sensitivity into a more pronounced one. Even workers who did not previously show symptoms of an allergic reaction to a substance may develop an allergy to it over time.

Sometimes these allergic reactions can come out of the blue. In 2008 The New York Times reported one such case in which a company installed 30,000 square feet of new carpeting in its offices. As more and more carpet was laid, a female employee got more and more sick.

After the fifth day, she had to go to the emergency room. Doctors called her's a case of “occupational asthma.”

In this employee's case it was probably either the carpet fibers or glue that set her off. Some of the other more common environmental allergens workers may be exposed to include mold, pollen, latex, dust mites, and other pests.

While many people are aware of these common allergens, there are many others that employees and their supervisors may not readily recognize – things like formaldehyde, isocyanates, chromium, nickel, and cobalt.

Food allergies

Increasingly, food allergies are a problem in the workplace, particularly at companies that have a common lunch area with a shared refrigerator and microwave.

FARE – Food Allergy Research and Education – advises people with known food allergies to notify supervisors and human resources when beginning a new job.

“Many adults with food allergies prefer to prepare and bring their own lunches to work,” the group says on its website. “It is important to ensure your food is not contaminated or tampered with. Speak to your supervisor about the current norms set up for the kitchen space. Place your lunch in a sealed container, and label your food with your name and a 'please do not touch' message. You might also ask for a designated space in a shared cupboard.”

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