How to Manage Allergies in the Workplace
Exposure to allergens in the workplace may negatively impact employees’ productivity and jeopardize their health and safety. Here are some guidelines for addressing allergies in the workplace.
Even before an issue occurs, there are steps you can take to help reduce or avoid workplace exposure to allergens, such as:
- Conducting an assessment of the work environment;
- Adding HEPA-certified filters to ventilation systems and changing them frequently;
- Using portable air cleaners with HEPA-certified filters;
- Cleaning, dusting, and vacuuming more frequently and using HEPA-certified vacuum bags;
- Keeping windows and doors closed when seasonal allergies tend to peak; and
- Preventing conditions that are conducive to mold.
If the employee informs you that their allergy or sensitivity is preventing them from performing their job duties, engage in a dialogue to discuss the limitations they are experiencing and to determine what, if any, accommodation should be provided. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide a reasonable accommodation to qualified applicants and employees with a disability, as defined under the law, absent an undue hardship to the employer. Some states and local jurisdictions have similar requirements that cover smaller employers. In general, the determination of whether an allergy (or any other impairment) is a disability should be made on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with legal counsel.
When a reasonable accommodation is required for an allergy, the accommodation should be effective in enabling the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to provide the first accommodation requested by the employee if you can offer an effective alternative.
Document the interactive process from the beginning, including reasons for granting or denying an accommodation request, as well as accommodation options that may have been proposed and rejected.
Examples of Accommodations:
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) , a service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, suggests a number of possible actions employers could take to accommodate an employee with allergies or fragrance sensitivities, including:
- Maintaining good indoor air quality.
- Discontinuing the use of fragranced products.
- Modifying workstation location or work schedules.
- Providing an air purification system.
- Encouraging use of teleconferencing or other forms of technology instead of face-to-face meetings.
- Allowing the employee to take time off to attend medical appointments.
- Permitting the employee to work from home.
- Offering a private and enclosed workspace to the employee.
- Providing the employee with a mask or respirator that is able to filter airborne particles.
- Allowing the employee to take periodic rest breaks to go outside/inside or take medication.
A growing number of employers are adopting policies to address allergies and fragrance sensitivities. Some employers simply ask that employees voluntarily avoid wearing products with fragrances in the workplace. In addition to airborne irritants, many employers are addressing food allergies. For instance, some employers have completely banned peanuts and tree nuts in the workplace because of potential severe reactions.
Employers may also consider developing an emergency action plan to provide guidance for how to address allergic reactions in the workplace. The plan may include, contact protocols, including calling 911 and the employee’s emergency contact, possible first aid measures, and reporting requirements. Also consider training to educate employees about allergies, including recognizing and responding to an allergic reaction.
Other Employer Responsibilities:
Under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, employers with more than 10 employees must keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses, unless they are classified under one of the partially exempt low-hazard industries. For covered employers, a work-related injury must be recorded if it results in death, days away from work, restricted work or transfer to another job, medical treatment beyond first aid, or loss of consciousness. Employers should review OSHA regulations to understand whether circumstances surrounding an allergic reaction in their workplace would be considered work-related and require recording.
Note: All employers must report to OSHA work-related injuries and illnesses that result in a fatality (or an employee's in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye).
Make sure you have effective policies and practices to help prevent and respond to exposure to allergens in the workplace.