Allergies at Work: How to Stay Safe and Happy
Changing the Mindset
Even when allergies do get proper consideration, the allergic employee may be left with doubts that the condition will affect his or her career path. Such beliefs are not paranoia, says Dr. Jeremy Beach, an Edmonton allergist and an associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Alberta. In today’s uncertain business environment of contracting out work, little job security, and heightened competition, Beach thinks there is a great need to appear strong and in control. “Any admission you are not fully competitive is a weakness in your armour,” and that’s a potential problem. He says the stigma of a “condition” could cause an employer to wonder about an employee’s suitability for promotion. If allergies or asthma cause an employee to miss work, that may also harm a career.
Beach says most employers are “not terrific” at adapting when an employee develops allergies or asthma. While there are federal and provincial laws governing worker safety, Beach points to Alberta’s legislation as typical. “What the law requires is that an employer maintains a safe and healthy workplace,” he says. A substance like wheat or dust isn’t considered harmful or toxic to the majority of workers.
The concept of rights for those with allergies and asthma can be difficult to address. Stark says it’s a matter of how much is society’s responsibility to keep sensitized individuals safe versus their own responsibility for protecting their health “by being careful about what they eat and environments they’re in.
”As the first wave of the soaring population of young people with allergies and asthma begins to mature into briefcase-toting professionals, there are still few ground rules on the job. In fact, so new and pressing is this area to consider that AllerGen, the national research centre on allergic disease, has begun some research projects on workplace exposures and prevention. If there is one thing that may grab employers’ attention and encourage enlightened attitudes, it is the pricetag attached to allergic disease. Beach provides information from a 1996 study that puts the direct and indirect costs of occupational asthma in the United States at $1.6 billion. That includes medical expenses, lost wages and costs to the economy. In Canada, Dr. Cameron Mustard, who is a University of Toronto professor and part of the AllerGen team, estimates the direct and indirect costs of asthma on the job to be $100 million. As statistics for allergy on its own have yet to be added to the equation, and as allergic disease and asthma continue to escalate, so will the pricetag to the North American economy.
In the world of business, it seems reasonable to hope that where money talks, awareness and improved policies are likely to follow.
First published in Allergic Living magazine, Winter 2006 (c) Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.
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