Allergies on the Job: 7 Workplace Irritants

Although Sperrazza did not return to hospital-based nursing, her experiences shaped her current career path. She's now a hospice nurse and also working toward her doctoral degree in occupational and environmental hygiene, where she is doing research on nurses' occupational health.

And she has become a workplace health advocate.

"Lots of modifications can be made to accommodate people who have a problem," she said. "You can increase ventilation when you might be doing something harmful and you can find alternative products to use to make workplaces safer."

She passed on yet another piece of health advice that she learned the hard way: "Some people don't know why they have asthma. They don't understand that it might be their work."

Fragrance Sensitivity

You may have caught a whiff of a person's overpowering perfume or cologne in a confined space, like an elevator, airplane or religious service, and were bothered by the aroma, but it didn't make you ill.

But others are extremely sensitive to fragrances. Although this sensitivity often is not a full-blown allergy, it can make the daily grind extremely uncomfortable.

Jessica Kaufman works in a health care facility in Vermont where her co-workers have tried to accommodate her sensitivity to scents.

But it's not just her colleagues she needs to worry about. It's the constant shuffle of patients and visitors wearing scented products that she has no control over.

"I can't tell what perfume I will react to, and I react to all different degrees," said Kaufman. "It has nothing to do with the strength of the fragrance."

To make it through the day, she takes antihistamines and decongestants every morning.

Before she realized she had a problem, she was fond of putting on fragrances or lighting a scented candle. However, the candle would cause her to wheeze and cough.

"I was so used to being this way," she said of her asthma-like symptoms.

Kaufman has taken steps to make her home fragrance-free and requests a fragrance-free room when she travels. Her husband is also fragrant sensitive, so they deal with the problem together.

But the workplace is another matter. Although the hospital where she works has a no-fragrance policy, it's a tough thing to enforce -- not only for employees, but for all the other folks who come and go each day.

"We've received an ongoing and steady increase in calls from employees and employers about fragrance sensitivities," said Linda Batiste, a principal consultant at the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. "There's a lot more awareness about it."

Usually, Batiste said an employer is willing to ask workers for voluntary compliance to avoid wearing fragrances.

"But it's virtually impossible to police this," she admitted.

Sometimes, an employee can be moved to a different location in the building where he or she will have access to a window, better ventilation or a private office to reduce exposure.

Batiste offered this piece of advice to employers: "Be careful about confidentiality. Unless the employee has given you permission, you can't say who the person is with the sensitivity."

Mice Allergy

Most of us try to avoid mice, but Bev Paigen studies them. She's a mouse geneticist who uses the rodents as a model to research the genetics of heart disease.

As a professor at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, Paigen can't help but be surrounded by mice.

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