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Allergies at Work: How to Stay Safe and Happy

It was the afternoon of Rob Kania’s first day on the job at a marketing firm. Everyone was gathered for a celebration of a colleague’s birthday. The person being feted started handing out slices of cake. Kania said “no thanks” to a piece, and his new colleague looked taken aback. Her look said: “Who is this rude guy?”

Kania, who lives in Victoria, remembers this incident two years ago as “horrible”; he had wanted to make a good impression on the first day. He turned down the birthday cake because of his peanut allergy [1], but Kania, then 21, didn’t say that. “There were 30 bigwigs standing around and I did not want to be out of place.” In hindsight, it would have better if he had just been upfront about his condition.

Kania’s awkwardness with allergy in an office situation is hardly unusual. While great strides are being made in spreading allergy awareness and precautions in the schools, there is much less support and few allergy-friendly policies in the grownup working world of the business lunch, the office party (with its trays of mystery hors d’oeuvres) and the catered conference. Allergic Living spoke to employees with both food and environmental allergies in a variety of professions to discover how they coped on the job. Some are vocal with their bosses and colleagues about their conditions, but many are not.

Those with environmental allergies or asthma triggers (ranging from dust and mould to VOC paints and other chemicals) often suffer their symptoms in silence in their workplaces. And when it comes to food allergies, many who are at risk of anaphylaxis admit they have taken dangerous chances rather than stand out among their peers.

Raising the Subject

Tracy Hill had wanted to keep her allergies to fish and shellfish quiet at work, “whispered,” she says. Hill, 42, is a radiation therapist at a hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Then one day at a conference, she had a life-threatening reaction to some Mexican food, resulting in an ambulance ride to the hospital. “That taught me a lesson,” she says. “Although I don’t like to draw attention to myself, it’s way better to have that conversation than have a big scene with an EpiPen in your leg and the stretcher coming.”

Dr. Mitch Persaud, a Saskatoon allergist, encourages patients to tell colleagues about their allergies from the get-go rather than waiting until they’re breaking out in hives and wheezing. He says some patients avoid doing so because they feel that their allergies are under control. “I don’t think that’s the approach,” he says. “Mistakes can occur any time.”

When a job requires working with customers, raising the topic of your allergies may require a degree of finesse. Peter Burnside, a 47-year-old Toronto salesman, travels continuously for work and eats as many as 15 meals a week in restaurants, often with clients. When his allergies to nuts, peanuts and barley come up, he tries to explain briefly and then steer the conversation back to his clients. “I wouldn’t want the first thing they think to be, ‘Hey, he’s allergic to nuts.’ Rather, ‘he’s got a great product’ – that’s what you want them to think.” Burnside adds: “You definitely don’t want to appear weak.”

Similarly, Colleen Serban, a 30-year-old photographer from Kenora, Ontario, told Allergic Living that she has to be concerned about whether her hayfever and asthma [2] will cost her business. She strives to avoid photographing clients outdoors during the spring and fall because her medications sometimes cause her hands to shake. “I don’t want them to think I’m not able to do the job.” Serban also photographs weddings and feels embarrassed asking what’s on the menu for dinner shortly after she has landed a contract. She doesn’t want to leave the bride feeling: “I just hired her, and now she wants to decide what our meal is.”

June Traptow can relate. She, too, is a photographer and owns a studio in Red Deer, Alberta. Traptow, 49, has allergies and intolerances to nuts, dairy, gluten and eggs, and is often left scrambling for safe food at the catered events she attends to network with other business owners. She is concerned that when such peers and potential clients learn of her allergies, they may think she’s difficult to please. When they watch her at a meal – perhaps sending back a salad with croutons – some will also become paternal. “They want to look after my food problems, and that becomes an issue of credibility,” she says.

Dr. Donald Stark, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a Vancouver allergist, agrees that “people who don’t have allergies aren’t always particularly sympathetic to the allergy sufferer.” They may assume incorrectly, “it’s just a runny nose or a few hives, what are you making a big fuss about?” But he says the only safe route for the person with allergies and/or asthma is to get past the embarrassment and to inform bosses and colleagues about such a condition. Persaud, the Saskatoon allergist, advises the patient with food allergies to explain the allergy basics to co-workers in a pleasant and non-confrontational manner. He says it’s important to let them know that reactions can be life-threatening, and to ask for co-operation to avoid exposure to an allergen in the workplace. As well, he suggests that at least one other person in the office know where the allergic person keeps the epinephrine auto-injector.

Next Page: Accommodating Allergies

Accommodating Allergies

If communicating with colleagues is challenging, tougher yet is asking an employer for changes to the workspace or company policy to accommodate one’s allergies. Andrea Forsyth, 30, is a personal trainer and fitness consultant who has allergies to dust, trees, flowers and dander in addition to food allergies. When she took a job running a Toronto fitness centre that had old carpet and dusty chairs, she started to wheeze and to get non-stop sniffles [3]. “I saw my doctor and he suggested that I ask the company to rip up the carpet and replace it,” she says. “But I assumed they wouldn’t do that for me.” The company eventually replaced the furniture, but the carpet stayed put. Forsyth never raised the subject but her environmental allergies, fortunately, improved over time.

Stark notes that peers and bosses tend to underestimate the ravages of such allergies. “If their noses are running like taps and their eyes are tearing and their minds are all bogged up, they can’t concentrate because they’re miserable,” he says. Environmental allergies also cause sleep deprivation and some antihistamines cause drowsiness, making employees unhealthy, less productive and more likely to call in sick. Such an environment also costs the employer.

Stark suggests that, if an employer isn’t likely to make expensive improvements, an allergic employee might have success asking for a portable HEPA filter for his or her workspace. Such a machine can significantly reduce exposure to dust, pollen and dander.

Barbara Moses, author of career planning guides and president of BBM Human Resource Consultants, notes as well that valued staff may have more clout on the job than they think. She advises approaching the boss about accommodating allergies in a matter of fact and unapologetic manner. “Indicate that a doctor has told you this and ask for the changes that you want made.” If the employer isn’t willing, it’s up to the employee to make a compelling argument for why accommodation should be made. “That’s in the employer’s favour because they get to keep a talented employee,” Moses says.

When it comes to the food allergic, it’s often possible to meet their requirements at catered business functions. But it does take some advance work. People with food allergies are usually able to request a special meal (calling a hotel’s restaurant ahead of time to discuss) or they may offer to bring their own food to be served (in the case of multiple allergies). The service industry is becoming better equipped to deal with such needs, and increasingly professional chefs are trained in issues of food substitution and avoiding cross-contamination. The “special meal” also cuts down on embarrassment at the corporate dinner table: the guest simply mentions the pre-arranged special request to the waiter, who serves it at dinner.

The lunch or dinner brought onto the company premises can prove more problematic. For instance, Jody Denny, a 29-year-old graphic designer in Woodstock, New Brunswick, once asked if a catered meal could exclude her triggers – she’s allergic to shellfish, and has sensitivities to meat, chocolate and some fruits. A colleague complained, and the boss told Denny that “‘this was out of control and I wasn’t being fair to the rest of the people’. I had to go calm myself. I was like, ‘oh my God, these people want me to die.’ They obviously did not understand.

”To communicate the seriousness of her condition, Denny printed 50 pages of information from the Internet on food allergies, anaphylaxis and asthma. She insisted that the information be kept in her file.

Stark sees his patients grappling to strike a balance at work between protecting themselves from harm and being too nonchalant to avoid awkward situations. He says patients often fall into one of two extremes: those who ignore their allergies and become risk-takers or those who become too strident. Those in the latter group can end up antagonizing co-workers about what they can eat and what can be in the environment. Persaud suggests the best way to drive home the severity of an allergy is to tell a story about an allergic reaction, including what triggered it, what symptoms resulted, and the medical treatment required. Calmly told, this can have an impact.

Next Page: Changing the Mindset

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.

Co-Workers and Your Allergies [4]
Off to College – with Food Allergies [5]
Food Allergy Signs and Symptoms [6]

First published in Allergic Living magazine, Winter 2006 (c) Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.
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