When the office makes you sick

As allergies rise, staff are blaming their workplaces — even when the culprits are somewhere else.

Gone are the days of packing peanut-butter sandwiches, spritzing perfume and smoking at the office. Each has become a health concern at workplaces across Canada. The number of people with allergies is swelling, forcing employers to respond.

Earlier this month, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published a study estimating that 2.5% of Americans have a food allergy. It also found that the odds of a person experiencing a severe asthma attack rose 7% if they had food allergies as well. And the problem has been getting worse. Toronto Allergy Group representatives say that the incidence of food allergies has doubled over the past decade. British researchers, meanwhile, found that the rate of anaphylaxis increased by 19% between 2001 and 2005.

There are plenty of theories about why allergies are on the rise. Scientists blame everything from our obsessive cleaning to cooking methods to chemical exposure. Whatever the cause, it’s becoming increasingly important for employers to accommodate staff who require a hypoallergenic workplace — and for those staffers to know their rights.

Figuring out the source of an allergic reaction isn’t always easy. Kathryn Nichol, a program specialist with the Public Services Health and Safety Association, says that workplace allergies can begin with a sensitivity to a product that grows more severe — even life-threatening — as exposure continues. In other words, your allergy may not develop until you’re exposed to the agent, which triggers a sensitivity to the chemical or protein.

Allergies aren’t the only problem. In 2007, a study on environmental sensitivities found that 3% of Canadians become sick when exposed to traces of chemicals, dust, and other environmental triggers. But the irritant du jour is fragrance. Not only are air fresheners and smelly cleaners being swapped for less-pungent alternatives, but people increasingly face requests to refrain from wearing perfume or cologne to the office, school or health centres. That’s because the chemicals in these products can trigger a reaction dubbed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition that causes nausea and headaches when sufferers are exposed to even low levels of certain chemicals. For the one in four Canadians who suffer from respiratory disease (at least 40% of whom experience allergic responses that can worsen their conditions), controlling scent in the workplace can greatly improve their lives, not to mention productivity.

While scent-free workplaces are a trend, in Ontario they may become the law. In May, Bill 64 was introduced into the provincial legislature to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to scents in the workplace. If passed (it’s currently awaiting second reading), it will require managers to develop policies on the use of scented products.

What makes this a tricky arena for both employees and employers is that the cause of a reaction isn’t always clear. “It’s very difficult in some cases to determine whether the allergy or sensitivity is being triggered by your workplace or something else in your life,” says Nichol. Mould, for example, could be hiding on a wet ceiling tile at the office, or somewhere in your house. But if the workplace is the definite cause, then employees are entitled to protection under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Still, notes Nichol, “Unless it’s proven to be work-related, [employers] are not under any obligation to do anything about it.”

Those concerned about keeping staff healthy and productive, however, should perform regular assessments of air quality and check for mould around windows, says Monika Gibson, the Ontario representative at the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. “Especially if people are becoming ill for no apparent reason, employers need to take that seriously.” Gibson also recommends scent restrictions or bans, and encouraging employees to brush off animal fur — especially cat hair — before coming to work.

But sensitivity to staff concerns needs to be tempered by pragmatism. MCS, for example, can be a psychosomatic phenomenon. “It can become kind of a panicked situation,” says Nichol, “where if one person is reacting, then another reacts, and there’s a company meltdown where people start thinking there’s multiple-chemical exposure going on.” Research confirms that MCS patients can react as strongly to placebos as to actual chemical exposure, leading some to conclude that MCS symptoms are mainly psychological. Nichol doesn’t write off MCS, but rec??ommends caution. “Sometimes, MCS happens when people are being laid off, and it’s really all about stress.”