Top 5 workplace allergens and how to avoid them

Full time workers may spend a quarter or more of their week indoors at their workplace. All that time spent indoors can expose workers to workplace allergens that could make for a miserable work week, with symptoms extending out into the evening commute and time at home.

11 million American workers across every industrial sector may have exposed to workplace allergens.

According to a 2017 report published in the European Medical Journal, an estimated 11 million American workers across every industrial sector may have been exposed to workplace allergens (1). The study noted that similar findings have been reported in Europe and other nations.

Workplace allergic reactions can be mild to severe and can include:

  • rhinitis
  • contact dermatitis
  • breathing difficulties and asthma attacks
  • anaphylactic shock

And in addition to these physiological reactions, allergies can also cause a bevy of negative cognitive symptoms, including (2):

  • brain fog
  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • depression

Many of the most common allergens in the workplace can also be found in the home. Responsible employers must consider how to improve air quality in a larger physical environment, with many potential allergen sources, and more people affected.

With the following rundown of the most common workplace allergens in hand, every employer can have a happier, more productive workforce.

1. Dust in the workplace

Dust is often prevalent in building common areas, offices, and other facilities. Dust is comprised of numerous tiny particles that can easily float through the air and settle on surfaces:

  • dandruff and skin flakes
  • various miniscule fibers
  • human and animal hair
  • grains, dirt, soil, or sand
  • leaves and other plant parts
  • dust mites
  • bacteria, fungi

When inhaled, this conglomeration of matter irritates breathing pathways and triggers allergic responses.

Indoor dust can come from the outdoors (like soil particles or vehicular matter floating through windows) and be carried from place to place on our clothing. Settled dust is also often found in carpeting, upholstered furniture, and air conditioning units.

Solutions: Apart from regularly cleaning your environment, potentially removing any old carpeting, and making sure HVACs are kept clean, note that dust mites do well in humid indoor environments. Your ideal indoor humidity should be around 40 percent to reduce this allergen in workspaces.

2. Pollen grains carried on the wind

Air quality at work is usually associated with indoor air but can also be impacted by outdoor sources.

Outdoor pollen can find its way indoors through windows and HVAC systems. It’s especially a problem when HVAC systems suffer from inadequate filters or haven’t replaced old, ineffective filters. Pollen can also be introduced into the workplace through pollinating indoor plants.

Pollen grains are created by plants to deliver their reproductive cells to other plants (3). Sometimes, pollen is carried to other parts of the same plant.

Tiny, fine pollen grains are easily carried from trees, grasses, and flowers on the wind.

Tiny, fine pollen grains are easily carried from trees, grasses, and flowers on the wind. They may range from 6 microns to 100 microns in diameter. Breathing in pollen can trigger asthma attacks and allergy and symptoms.

Solutions: Employers can control pollen exposure and keep outdoor pollutants out of indoor environments by choosing MERV 16 rated HVAC filtration and replacing filters before the end of their effective lifetime. You can also monitor outdoor air quality and close doors and windows on days when there are high concentrations of outdoor air pollutants like pollen.

3. Mold hides in the walls

Molds can thrive in workplaces that are too humid or damp – and they can cause employees literal headaches.

An estimated 20 to 40 percent of buildings in North America and Northern Europe could be home to visible fungal growth (4).

Molds can flourish in workplaces that are too humid or damp.

Spores from molds may be responsible for allergic responses and can trigger asthma attacks. Molds can also produce mycotoxins which can become aerosolized and spread through buildings.

When there’s an undetected building roof or pipe leak, poor humidity, flooding, or water in a building’s foundation, mold can grow inside of walls. While mold will often stay inside the walls, it can move into the drywall and interior walls where it will be more visible.

Building occupants may experience symptoms of mold inhalation. Mold and other biological and chemical contaminants can be factors in Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS symptoms can include headaches and dizziness as well as respiratory illness (5).

Solutions: Like dust mites, you can control mold growth by keeping your indoor humidity at about 40 percent. The ambient building temperature shouldn’t be too warm, as this encourages bacterial and mold growth.

If there are water leakages, a plumber or HVAC contractor may needed to control the leak and mold growth. There are also effective air cleaning solutions that can help reduce spores in workplaces.

4. Pet dander rides along to work

Even when a workplace doesn’t permit pet visitation, it’s entirely possible to trigger a co-worker’s allergic reaction from pets and animals.

Pet dander can be carried by owners on clothing wherever they go, including work.

Why is that? Because even when animals are restricted from a work environment, pet dander can be carried by owners on clothing wherever they go, including work (6). Once in an environment, pet dander can easily be breathed in when it becomes airborne or land and stick to furniture and carpets.

Solutions: Avoid carpeting floors. Carpeted workspaces should be vacuumed frequently. If you have a pet and want to help keep your co-workers breathing better, you can make sure you bathe your pets regularly and keep your clothes clean and away from pets before heading to work.

You can also run a HyperHEPA air purifier or a personal desk air purifier to trap pet dander and clean the air.

5. Airborne chemical irritants from cleaning

Cleaning chemicals and other odors can cause illness in workers – but not necessarily an allergic reaction.

Chemical allergens and allergic reactions are generally associated with skin irritation or contact dermatitis. However, airborne chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene can cause negative reactions and respiratory problems in some people (7).

Affected individuals may also struggle with a condition known as idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI). Formerly called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), IEI is not an allergic reaction but does cause symptoms, such as (8):

  • quickened heart rate
  • headache
  • sweating
  • dizziness

IEI can be triggered by airborne exposure to scented products, perfumes, smoke, dust, and cleaning fluids.

Solutions: Always try to use products that are low in VOCs; these will include the phrase “low VOC” on the label. It is also a good idea to store cleaning products away from indoor workspaces. Finally, a gas and odor air purifier can help clear the air of harmful chemicals and VOCs.

The Takeaway

According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, employees with allergies who didn’t use medication demonstrated a 10 percent decrease in productivity (9). Mitigating allergens in the workplace puts employees more at ease and improves productivity.

By investing in green, medical-grade clean air technologies and taking steps to mitigate allergens, workplace leaders make a commitment to their employees’ welfare and safety while keeping an eye on the company’s bottom line.

The number one air cleaning solution for your home.

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