Preventing Allergies at Work Takes a Multi-Pronged Approach

Sometimes fragrances or chemicals from new furniture or cleaning supplies may be to blame for those nonspecific symptoms, Pacheco said. In these cases, an employee might propose implementing a fragrance-free office environment, with help from management.

Allergy Detectives

Occasionally, a work allergy has an easy fix. Sublett recalled a patient of his who came to him reporting terrible allergic symptoms and he discovered she was allergic to cats. It turned out that her cubby-mate at work had three cats and was exposing her co-worker to those allergens.

"As allergists, we're environmental detectives," Sublett said. What the patient says, the clinical diagnosis and environmental evaluation can all help to connect the dots.

The phenomenon where people are only ill inside a particular building is often nebulously dubbed Sick Building Syndrome or Building Related Illness because of the location-specific but non-specific symptoms. These names and the number of scenarios to which they can be applied underscore Pacheco's point that this problem is difficult to identify, diagnose, and treat.

For any affliction of this type, management support and attention to detail is crucial. Without care, the underlying cause may never be corrected, as happened to DeFlorimonte.

"I didn't feel they were doing all they could," DeFlorimonte said of the administration at her school. Though she brought up her mold allergy and its resulting symptoms with the principal and vice principal often, they only went as far as changing the ceiling panels without fixing the building leaks.

"It was putting a band-aid on the problem," she said

After seven years of her mold-infested work environment, DeFlorimonte took a year-long sabbatical to get some rest and work on other projects. Her respiratory problems cleared up right away.

"It was dramatic, it was a dramatic change," she said. The feeling was such a revelation, Deflorimonte decided not to return to her old job and began working at another school in Maryland.

"I've been fine," she said. "I haven't even had a cold."

DeFlorimonte's decision to quit her job represents one extreme solution for allergy sufferers at work.

Unfortunately, as Pacheco pointed out, work-related allergies may not lend themselves to too much self help. Using facemasks, fans or applying hand sanitizer are not effective ways to combat the irritating symptoms because they don't tackle the source of the problem.

"People need a higher level of awareness and an interest in doing it right," Persily said.

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