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Allergies on the job

How to avoid itching, sneezing and wheezing at work

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Allergies on the job

Just imagine for a moment the upswing our daily lives might take with a real reduction of allergic reactions in our places of work.

Just imagine for a moment the upswing our daily lives might take with a real reduction of allergic reactions in our places of work.

In reality, when we saunter off to work each day with aspirations of being productive, making a difference or lending a hand, the list of allergens we encounter may put a serious stop to those plans. Once we’ve left the relative safety of home, how can we reduce our exposure to allergens and sidestep the results of mild, moderate or even severe reactions in the workplace? Avoidance might be simpler than you think.

Not everyone suffers from allergies, but the numbers are increasing. With over 9 million Australians commuting to work every day, the number of people who come into contact with an allergen on the job adds up.

An estimated 4.1 million Australians live with at least one allergy, and according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Alliance, “The prevalence of food allergy in Australia is estimated to be 1 percent to 2 percent of the population”.

Unlike colds, which eventually disappear, seasonal or daily exposure to allergens can mean prolonged misery. Some reactions, however, can be immediate.

In general, allergies are characterised by hypersensitivity to everyday substances (allergens). These set off reactions in the body that can produce a variety of symptoms we’ve come to know: itchiness, red and watery eyes, swelling of the affected area and wheezing. At its most dangerous, an allergic reaction can cause anaphylactic shock, a medical emergency in which the person has difficulty breathing and may lose consciousness.

Conventional medical treatment for allergies may include immunotherapy, the administration of allergy shots to desensitise the sufferer over time. Medications such as steroids, antihistamines or adrenaline (epinephrine) are sometimes prescribed. Those with known serious allergies may want to carry a pre-packaged syringe with adrenaline that can be administered in an emergency. See your health practitioner for advice on where to purchase one. (See sidebar for natural remedies).

As individuals we can take steps to avoid allergens. Employers can introduce some simple naturally based solutions to reduce work environment exposure. The goal is to minimise workers’ contact with allergens and to increase their ability to work productively.

Common airborne allergens

Mould

Moulds can occur in any dark place where the conditions are right: high humidity or moisture, an organic nutrient substrate, mould spores and oxygen. The build-up of mould growth is what we are concerned with. It is the mould spores which reproduce and cause allergic responses.

Often difficult to detect, spores are prevalent and reproduce at a rapid rate around plumbing systems, leaky roofs and less than perfectly sealed building foundations. Conversely, fully sealed buildings can result in poor air exchange and lead to an accumulation of indoor moisture. Wood-framed structures are also at greater risk of developing mould because wood provides a healthy organic growth medium.

Allergic rhinitis can be caused by inhaled mould allergens. It is characterised by inflammation of the mucous membranes, sneezing, runny nose, watering eyes or mucosal infections. Exposure to mould spores can also lead to an asthma attack in some individuals.

Airborne mould allergens can be prolific, but there are simple solutions employers can put into place to decrease workplace exposure:

  • Drying out murky, damp places is the best strategy here. Employers can alleviate concerns by having a professional check for moulds in areas most likely steeped in humidity.
  • If possible, indoor air should be monitored, with relative humidity maintained between 30 to 50 per cent.

Dust mites

For some of us with allergies, having millions of dust mites surrounding us in the workplace is not at all good company. At home we work diligently in our personal and family spaces to remove these little aggravators from our bedding and soft surfaces. Like moulds, dust mites thrive in moist places, with an added preference for warm environments. In the workplace, carpets can be the perfect breeding ground for dust mites. Upholstered furniture is also a favourite location for the little creatures.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

VOCs, ubiquitous in any industrialised society, are carbon-based particles found in many materials that off-gas into the environment under normal indoor conditions. The most common source of VOC emissions in the workplace is solvent-based chemicals. They affect our indoor air quality by emitting chemicals such as ozone, inorganic gases and formaldehyde. Examples of possible solvents in the work environment include paint, wood-finishing materials, carpeting, adhesives and photocopy machine toners.

Compromised air quality can cause allergic respiratory symptoms. These symptoms vary from sneezing to more serious asthmatic symptoms and possibly to chronic respiratory disease over the longer term. There is some positive news, however. Combating inflammation-causing airborne enemies is a relatively simple matter.

  • In the office, employers can locate equipment that uses toner in a well-ventilated area so workers won’t be exposed to VOCs and toner particulate. A separate ventilated room is preferable. As employees, we can help by following the rule: think before you print. 
  • If there is an opportunity to paint workplace surfaces, products with a low VOC content should be chosen. The addition of a colourant can elevate VOC level, so the goal should be to use paints with VOC levels as close to zero as possible, including pigment. Low-VOC paints and products offer the additional benefit of giving off a less detectable odour. 
  • Many manufacturing facilities, larger offices and industrial workplaces have large-scale heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems throughout their work environs. Routine maintenance will ensure good air quality by removing allergenic culprits.

Part of that regular maintenance is changing the filters in the air ventilation system. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) recommends using filters rated highly efficient at removing air particles. LEED also advises choosing filters made with synthetic material that will not allow microbial growth or shed fibres into the air.

  • Cleaning air ducts also reduces allergens in the atmosphere. Regular removal of water from humidifier tanks or refrigerator cooling coils greatly reduces standing water and moisture, which inhibits mould growth.
  • If replacing soft upholstered and carpeted surfaces with more cleanable corks, leathers, laminate or wood flooring isn’t in the cards, regular and thorough cleaning is an excellent alternate choice. Carpet, upholstery, drapery and blinds should be cleaned with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuum to remove dust. Alternately, a central vacuum system will remove particles to the exterior of the building.
  • Regular vacuuming is an effective strategy for reducing dust, but it can also stir up dust mites and make them temporarily airborne. The little critters should be wiped away with a damp cloth after they’ve landed on hard surfaces such as desks, workstations and countertops. Add a little vinegar to the cleaning solution to further inhibit allergens.

Fragrance

Though washing, deodorising and spritzing with perfumed products brings promises of alluring glances from across the office, there may be unintended results. Once-friendly coworkers may view the wall of scent as an annoyance and may even experience severe allergic reactions.

In 2007 the American Contact Dermatitis Society awarded fragrances the title Allergen of the Year. In a related article, Frances J. Storrs of Oregon Health & Science University cited the research and expanded on the ubiquity of fragrance: “There are more than 2800 fragrance ingredients listed in the database of the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc. (RIFM). At least 100 of these ingredients are known allergens”.

The definition of scented fragrance is broad, making it difficult to identify one single chemical compound as the main cause of an allergenic reaction. Reported allergic responses to fragrance vary from sneezing to trouble breathing. Generally, fragrance appears to be more of an immediate reaction irritant.

Reducing fragrance friction in the office does not have to involve personal confrontation with the offender. Instead employers can adopt a fragrance-free policy to reduce exposure to aromatic offenders. At one time, the restriction of fragrance in the workplace was limited mainly to health clinics and airplanes. In the last several years, however, as the result of increased public awareness of the problems scents can cause, the use of perfumes in workplaces appears to have diminished.

Luckily, scent-free products are becoming easier to find. Visit any natural health store where the staff can answer any questions you have and suggest a variety of low- or no-scent products. Fragrance-free cosmetics and cleaning solutions have even made their way into many popular pharmacies and supermarkets.

Direct contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when skin is directly exposed to an allergen, such as a cleaning product, perfume, an industrial chemical or latex. Reactions are usually limited to the skin area that came in contact with the allergen, can range from mild to severe, and may be delayed, appearing 24 hours or more after exposure. The affected area can erupt in an itchy rash or bumps, or become blistered and open.

Cleaning products

With so many different surfaces in the workplace, the number of different products used to clean them can create an allergenic cloud. Conversely, the not-so-practical alternative of refraining from all cleaning activities also allows allergens to thrive.

Luckily, employers can take simple steps to ensure workplace health. By scaling back the number of cleaning product purchases, employers can reduce costs, lessen inventory and lower levels of allergic irritants. Workplace purchasers will be relieved that large container sizes of allergen-reduced cleaners are available through distributors.

Latex

Natural rubber latex is derived from the plant Hevea brasiliensis and is present in many workplace materials. This is especially true in health care facilities.

If employees are reporting rashes, hives or localised irritations, employers may want to look into whether the rubberised material in commonly used items is causing the problem. Mouse pads, desk pads, adhesives, carpets or rubber handgrips may contain latex. Again, avoiding contact is key, and latex rubber-free products are available for those with sensitivities.

Allergens in food

Peanuts, nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk products and food additives such as sulphites are the most common ingestible food-based allergens.

Taking a considerate approach with colleagues to reduce ingested allergen contact is an excellent idea. We can transport our nutritious meals in labelled, sealed containers; store them separately and clean up after ourselves in common kitchen areas, wiping preparation equipment and dining surfaces after each use. Gone are the days of washable cloths in office and workplace situations. Recyclable nonbleached paper can be used to reduce allergen transfer in all work areas by reducing contact incidents.

In the quest to purge allergens from the workplace, it’s reassuring to know that there are practical actions that can be taken. Introducing even a few measures to reduce contact are certain to increase overall wellness and productivity. May this season bring fewer symptoms for allergen sufferers, offering a certain lightness at work and bounce in each step.

The murky meaning of hypo-allergenic

The term hypo-allergenic is applied to substances that have a lower potential to cause an allergic reaction. It is neither a legal term nor a medical one, so it is often left to the interpretation of product manufacturers.

People react differently and to varying degrees when they are in contact with allergens, so what is hypo-allergenic for one person may not be for the next. Simply put, hypo-allergenic cleaners are the best bet—but not a sure bet.

Using naturally based cleaning products is a simple and effective way to reduce allergens in our home and work spaces. Check out a natural health retailer for effective hypo-allergenic cleaning products.

Natural allergy remedies

Though definitive scientific research may not be available to confirm the efficacy of each of these natural allergy remedies, many people who use them do find relief.

  • albizia
  • baical skullcap
  • quercetin
  • stinging nettle
  • bromelain
  • vitamin C
  • echinacea
  • grapeseed extract
  • pycnogenol
  • honey
  • spirulina
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