Aitchoo! Beth Leslie, at Inspiring Interns looks at the itchy subject of allergies in the workplace, so grab some tissues, and read on.
According to the World Allergy Organisation, 20-30% of the global population suffers from at least one allergy. Reactions vary from the mild to the severe: each year in the US, allergies are responsible for 200,000 emergency-room visits and 63-99 deaths.
As with any chronic conditions, allergies affect the workplace. Sufferers may take more sick leave, be unable to participate in certain situations, or even have an attack while working. In one survey, 22% of employees said they had witnessed a colleague suffer a severe allergic reaction at work.
Most problematic for employers looking to minimise these risks are allergies that are triggered by factors that are both common and airborne. In particular, allergies to nuts, scents, and pets, have led some employers to completely banned those triggers from their offices.
But are such blanket bans reasonable? And, more importantly, do they work?
The Legal Standpoint
Many countries, including the United States and Britain, consider allergies a disability if severe enough. (As a guide to what counts as severe enough, the Americans with Disabilities Act says it must “substantially limit one or more life activity”, such as working or breathing.) If an allergic employee falls under this classification, employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to prevent aspects of their workplace interfering with the allergy sufferer’s ability to do their job.
Unluckily for employers, the law is unclear how much accommodation is 'reasonable'. In 2012 one allergy sufferer sued her former employer for refusing to provide a fragrance-free workplace.
Individual Needs vs Majority Preferences
Banning scented products, pets, or food types from the office frequently causes resentment amongst non-allergic staff. This is particularly true when a policy is highly invasive: such as forbidding the consumption of nuts in the hours before coming into work.
People who are willing to forgo spraying perfume on themselves may rail at the suggestion that they switch their laundry detergent, deodorant, shampoo and so forth over to unscented products, especially considering they may be attached to their usual products for practical reasons (their preferred brand tames unruly hair, helps with a chronic sweating problem, is better value for money etc.).
While it is undoubtedly valid that a severe medical condition is much more important than being able to eat peanut butter for breakfast, upsetting large swathes of staff is terrible for company morale, productivity, and retention. Businesses must also consider the reasonable objection that banning one allergen could lead to a tsunami of removal requests from staff with other medical problems or preferences.
Moreover, not all sacrifices would be trivial. For example, how would an employer juggle an employee with a severe dog allergy with a colleague who requires a service dog?
The Importance of Personal Responsibility
In most walks of life, adults are expected to take on the responsibility of any problems they may encounter, and this same logic can be applied to preventing an allergic reaction. Before an employer steps in with company-wide bans, the allergic employee should be attempting to mitigate the risk themselves, through taking appropriate medication and avoiding triggers by, for example, only eating food they know the contents of.
The allergic employee should also proactively contact colleagues who are posing a problem – say by wearing a certain scent or eating nuts at their desk – and politely discuss the issue with them. Most people are more receptive to a friendly request than an authoritarian-seeming dictate, and most people would also be happy to make small life adjustments to ensure the comfort and wellbeing of their colleague.
Bans Can Hurt More Than They Help
Accidentally or deliberately, the risk of employees flouting any workplace ban is high. Moreover, because many transgressions would not be immediately detectable, the chance of the allergic employee encountering the violator in flagrante delicto is high.
It is for this reason that several high-profile allergy charities have opposed bans. The Anaphylaxis Campaign says that bans give a “false sense of security” and that allergy sufferers will “gain a better awareness of their allergies, and learn avoidance strategies, if they move in an environment where allergens may turn up unexpectedly.”
Backing up this stance, studies have found that schools which banned peanuts saw more allergic children exposed to them than in schools with no ban.
Risks of Bullying and Harassment
Unfortunately, allergies are often not regarded as serious medical conditions by non-sufferers. Consequently, employees who draw attention to their need for allergy accommodation frequently encounter disregard, disdain or even outright harassment from their co-workers.
One peanut-allergic woman filed a lawsuit after her colleagues deliberately ate peanuts close to her and even chased her around the office trying to touch her with them. Another woman who was severely allergic to a certain perfume was openly mocked in the office and on social media, with colleagues deliberately wearing the scent in order to trigger her.
In the above cases, company bosses refused to act to protect the allergic employee. But even when bosses do take allergies seriously, their staff sometimes do not, as shown by the case of a dog-allergic woman who was not informed that her new workplace was dog-friendly until she started. Her employer banned the dogs, which led to severe recriminations from her colleagues, who “made comments to each other as I walked by about… how selfish I am.” The allergic employee was excluded from meetings and projects, became a social pariah, and was eventually pushed out because HR felt that “one person was not worth damaging a strong company culture” for.
Not Hiring Allergy Sufferers
Some employers may wish to avoid the headache of having allergic staff at all, and refuse to hire them. This is particularly the case in terms of pet allergies, because dog-friendly workplaces are often seen as a productivity-boosting employee perk and an integral part of the company culture.
However, because allergies can count as disabilities, employees who refuse to hire candidates on that basis may fall foul of the law. Instead, employers should consider ways that accommodate employee allergies without the disruption of an office-wide ban. Allergy-free sections of the workplace, and educating employees about the risks of exposure, are often adequate alternatives to complete bans.