Allergies in The Workplace Safety Talk

August 19, 2021
By N. Nicholas, ASP

Allergies are a common problem that affect many employees while on and off the job.

There are many sources of allergens that can cause an allergic reaction.  These sources include, but are not limited to, mold, mites and fungi.

There are also many different types of allergies that can cause a reaction from someone else. Common examples are eye or skin irritation caused by pet dander or pollen respectively.

Allergens can easily make their way into the workplace environment via inhalation of air particles containing the allergen or contact with surfaces containing the substance.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has strict guidelines for how employers must handle allergens in order to allow employees work environments that have less exposure to these substances than what is considered average amongst non-allergic industries.

In order for OSHA standards to be applied, an allergen must trigger symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes or difficulty breathing. Allergens that cause hay fever like symptoms are not covered by the OSHA rules because they do not pose a health risk in a workplace setting.  

These specific rules apply to only very large commercial worksites with more than 10 employees and medium sized worksites with more than 20 employees across all companies in both public and private sectors. With all industries taken into account, these standards affect approximately 2% of the total workforce nationwide.

Common allergies in the workplace include

– Insect stings and bites

– Latex allergies

– Acute contact dermatitis (skin rashes) from chemicals, paints or latex gloves.

– Dander allergies caused by animal fur and skin cells.  The most common causes of these type of allergies are cats, dogs and horses. These animals are also the most commonly found in the workplace.

OSHA Safety Standards Regarding Allergies

In order to stay within OSHA safety standards, a procedure must be implemented that accounts for all employees with known or suspected allergies, as well as allows for additional control measures if there is an increased risk due to airborne allergens found at a certain worksite.

This process has been created through collaboration between OSHA specialists and health administration professionals who have detailed knowledge about specific types of allergies.

The first step in the prevention process is to have a company that is cognizant of potential airborne allergens at their worksites and be able to identify the sources, amounts and types of substances present there.

In order for this type of knowledge to be achieved, employers must communicate with employees about known or suspected allergens as well as take extra precautions when they have identified these causes to their workers.

Once this communication has taken place, there are several guidelines that need to be followed by employers who can greatly reduce the risk of employee exposure and reaction:

  • Allergen containing items used around sensitive areas such as break rooms or lunchrooms should not be allowed unless they are stored properly or packaged so that no particles containing allergens can escape into the air.
  • When there are items that do not have hermetic barriers around them or other forms of protection, a vacuum should be used to clean up these particles before they have time to spread around the area.   If this is not possible due to logistics and timing restrictions, they should at least be closed off with protective covers while they sit in an unused space.
  • Allergen containing items must be regularly cleaned and maintained by those responsible for doing so. This includes vacuuming floors and using HEPA filtered cleaning equipment as well as washing surfaces with safe cleaning agents such as vinegar or non chlorine based cleaners. This will help prevent allergens from getting into the air when dust particles become airborne, particularly during rinsing.
  • Allergen containing items are not to be mopped or hosed down with water. Instead, they must be cleaned with HEPA filtered vacuums and wiped dry using a damp cloth. This will prevent allergens from becoming airborne due to the action of rinsing away these particles suspended in droplets of water like occurs when mops or hoses are used.

When an allergy issue has been identified by employees within specific worksites, it is important that employers identify the cause and take proper precautions to reduce exposure risk.

If someone at your workplace is experiencing allergic reactions in response to a certain substance, determine what this allergen is and whether you control its presence on site through things like cleaning practices, packaging practices or other means.

If this is the case, it is important that you take precautions to ensure it does not spread throughout your work site and cause further problems for employees who have allergies.

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