Limiting Allergies in the Workplace


To reduce workplace allergies, keep your desk space clutter-free and consider using an air filter.
To reduce workplace allergies, keep your desk space clutter-free and consider using an air filter.
©iStockphoto.com/Zsolt Nyulaszi

Depending on where you work, you may be exposed to hundreds of substances that can cause nasal allergies and other respiratory problems. Some of the most common on-the-job allergens that cause allergic reactions are dust mites, mold spores, cockroaches, as well as animals' dander, urine, and feces. Workers can also become sensitized to a variety of other substances that can cause an allergic reaction.

Substances That Can Cause Allergy Symptoms

Many substances found in the workplace are irritants that don't produce a true allergic reaction but trigger the same kind of symptoms as allergies. A few of the more common substances include:

  • acid anhydrides (employees in the adhesive or plastic industries)
  • aluminum dust (aluminum handlers)
  • animal proteins such as dander, urine, and feces (animal workers)
  • cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke (all workers)
  • cotton fibers (employees in cotton mills)
  • colophony (employees in metal and electronics industries)
  • cromium, cobalt (cement workers)
  • formaldehyde (those who work with carpets, fabrics, or fiberboard)
  • formalin, fluorocarbons (beauticians)
  • fumes from paints, solvents, cleaning agents, or photocopiers (all workers)
  • grain dust, grain weevils (bakers, millers, grain workers, dock workers)
  • green tea (employees in tea processing or packaging plants)
  • glues (bookbinders)
  • insecticides (pesticide workers, gardeners, fumigants)
  • latex (healthcare workers)
  • organophosphates (pesticide workers)
  • papain (employees in meat processing plants or breweries)
  • platinum salts, acids (employees in jewelry or refining industries)
  • polyvinylchloride (meat wrappers or grocers)
  • pyrethrum (employees in fumigation, insect extermination, or gardening industries)
  • reactive dyes (beauticians or textile workers)
  • toluene disocyanate (auto body spray painters)
  • trypsin (employees in drug, chemical, or plastics industries)
  • wood dust (woodworkers, builders)

What to Do About Allergy-Causing Substances at Work

If you suspect your allergy symptoms are caused by allergens at your workplace, take these actions.

  • Identify the substance that is triggering your allergies.
  • Talk with your supervisor. He or she may help you learn how to resolve the problem.
  • Keep your work area uncluttered. Piles of papers, books, and files are collection spots for dust and molds.
  • Dust regularly. Use a damp cloth to remove dust from your workspace.
  • Request that the air exchange system in your building be checked. In many cases, improving the air quality and circulation reduces symptoms.
  • Use a HEPA-type tabletop air purifier. This can help keep the air around your workstation clean.
  • Ask coworkers not to smoke around you. Cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke can aggravate your allergies. If your workplace doesn't have a no-smoking policy, talk with your supervisor or union representative about creating one or at least having smoke-free areas.
  • Talk with OSHA or your union representative. Ask about respiratory equipment such as dust masks.
  • Consider changing jobs. If you know you have an allergy to a workplace substance and you can't escape exposure to it, talk with your supervisor about a job change. Or consider another line of work.

For more information about allergies and allergy relief, see the next page.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Written by Karen Serrano, MD Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Reviewed by Lisa V. Suffian, MD

Instructor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Pulmonary Medicine at Saint Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine

Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, Saint Louis University

Board certified in Allergy and Immunology

Last updated June 2008

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