Controlling Allergens in the Workplace

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Exposure to allergens can adversely affect workers and their ability to do their jobs.

Allergies can mean much more than sneezing and itchy eyes. For many people, allergens in their workplace can decrease their productivity and severely damage their health.

“An estimated 11 million workers in the USA are potentially exposed to agents that can become a cause of allergic diseases such as occupational asthma and allergic contact dermatitis, which can adversely affect health and well-being,” according to the 2017 paper “Occupational Allergy” published in the European Medical Journal.

Allergies are a hypersensitivity to a substance. The body reacts inappropriately, and symptoms can range from mild to life-threating. Common allergic reactions include:

  • Rhinitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Breathing problems and asthma
  • Anaphylactic shock

Common workplace allergens include animal dander and debris, foods, chemicals, latex, odorants, pollen, dust, mold, wood, dust, and resins.

Allergies cannot be cured but can be controlled. Managers who understand how to mitigate common workplace allergens can increase productivity, reduce medical costs, and improve workplace morale.

Eastern Kentucky University’s bachelor degree in occupational health and safety provides knowledge about creating healthy workplaces and positions graduates for success in various occupational health and safety career opportunities.

Occupational Immune Diseases

Occupational exposures cause between 9% and 25% of all adult onset asthma and about 20% of all skin disorders, “Occupational Allergy” reports.

Because the same chemical or substance can cause different reactions in different people, safety managers should be aware of the common sources of occupational immune diseases.

“As new hazards continue to emerge, it is critical to understand the immunological mechanisms of occupational allergic disease. Specific understanding of these mechanisms has direct implications in hazard identification, hazard communication, and risk assessment. Such efforts will ultimately assist in the development of risk management strategies capable of controlling workplace exposures to allergens to prevent the induction of sensitization in naïve individuals and inhibit elicitation of allergic responses,” the authors stated in “Occupational Allergy.”

The paper listed higher instances of occupational asthma and allergic contact dermatitis in people working in these industries:

  • Hairdressing and cosmetology
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing and automotive
  • Cleaning and janitorial
  • Food processing and packaging
  • Animal handling
  • Anything involving working with metals

The substances these people come in contact with vary and include proteins and chemicals, high and low molecular weight compounds, and natural and synthetic products.

According to “Occupational Allergy,” here are some common workplace allergens and who many come in contact with them.

AgentOccupation/ Industry
Flour dustFood processing, bakers, grill handlers
EnzymesDetergents, food, bakers
Plant productsHealthcare, food, agriculture
Wood dustFurniture, sawmill
Animal products and danderFarmers, food, veterinary, laboratory
IsocyanatesManufacturing, spray paint, plastics, polyurethane, plastics
AnhydridesChemical manufacturing, flame retardants, epoxy adhesives, plastics
AminesChemical manufacturing, spray painting, welding, metalworking
MetalsPaints, metal plating, welding
DyesHairdressing, food, photography, textiles
Antimicrobials, latex and biocidesHealthcare, janitorial, food, disinfectants

“Thousands of chemicals have been identified as causative agents of skin sensitization resulting in allergic contract dermatitis, while substantially fewer chemical allergens (<100) have been identified as causative agents of asthma,” “Occupational Allergy” noted.

Controlling and Preventing Allergic Exposure

Because exposure to allergens can adversely affect workers and their ability to do their jobs, employers should try to control and prevent allergy exposure.

“Sensitized workers must avoid exposure to the allergen both at work and outside the workplace in order to have the best chance of improvement or clearing of the allergic manifestations.” according to “Occupational Allergy.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other organizations recommend taking several steps to improve the environment in the workplace by:

  • Running air conditioning during peak allergy season.
  • Ensuring proper ventilation.
  • Using HEPA filters and changing them regularly.
  • Keeping the facilities clean and encouraging people to clean their workspaces regularly to reduce dust and mold.
  • Repairing any water damage to inhibit mold growth.
  • Hanging coats and jackets away from the main working area because coats often contain pet dander, pet hair, and other allergens.
  • Removing and regularly cleaning carpets and other absorbent materials.
  • Providing protective gear to employees who regularly handle irritants.
  • Encouraging medical treatment if an employee is having an allergy issue.

“Occupational Allergy” suggests medical monitoring and workplace exposure monitoring for areas with high concentrations of allergens such as chemical plants or manufacturing facilities.

Food Allergies

Allergy exposure in the workplace can also involve workers with food allergies. Workers do not need to disclose a food allergy to an employer unless they are asking for reasonable accommodations for it.

FARE, Food Allergy Research & Education, suggests workers with allergies:

  • Talk about the severity of the allergy and how co-workers can help by showing them the locations of antihistamines and EpiPens.
  • Explain that food allergies are not a joke.
  • Keep a separate kitchen space to store food and utensils away from possible allergens.
  • Ask co-workers to bring a list of ingredients when bringing foods to share into the office.

A food allergy may be considered a disability under several federal laws such as

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and the ADA Amendment Act of 2008.

FARE also recommends that employers:

  • Conduct training sessions to educate employees.
  • Post signage in kitchen and break spaces about how to spot the signs of an allergic reaction.
  • Provide designated utensils and a separate storage space.
  • Deal with employees who might interfere with reasonable accommodations.
  • Understand the need for sick time and unexpected leave for medical appointments or treatments.
  • Ask employees with allergies to keep medication with them at all times.

Knowing and understanding common workplace allergens and how to control them comes with education and experience. Having a degree can provide for growth and advancement in various occupational health and career opportunities.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program

Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety program is designed to show students how to identify safety risks and potential mitigation strategies in a variety of workplace settings. This degree can help prepare graduates for a position as a safety coordinator or many other occupational health and safety careers.

Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace. For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommend Reading:

The Economic Aspect of Health and Safety

Career Spotlight: Safety Technician

Health and Safety of Remote Workers


Occupational Allergy: European Medical Journal

Managing Allergies in the Workplace: Canopy Health

The Impact Of Allergic Rhinitis On Work Productivity: American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology

Prevention and Treatment: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

At Work: Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE)

Information for Employers: Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE)