Health and Safety Advice for Managing Allergies in the Workplace

  • Workplace Health & Safety
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

Some of your employees may be allergic to certain materials or foods, such as peanuts, gluten, latex, strong fragrances, dust, solvents, etc. Allergic reactions can vary from mild to life-threatening and may affect the skin, eyes and/or the respiratory system. Shortness of breath, excessive sneezing, watery eyes, skin irritation, swelling, rashes, and nausea are some common symptoms of an allergic reaction.

It is important that employers are proactive when it comes to protecting staff with allergies.

Can allergies be considered a disability?

In cases where a severe allergy affects a worker’s ability to do their job, it may be considered a disability.

Can an employer ask their staff if they have allergies?

Yes. It is a good practice to request all employees, especially new staff during onboarding, to share if they have any allergies. This will help employers create workplace policies to keep the work premises allergen-free and ensure the cooperation of other colleagues.

For instance, if an employee is allergic to strong fragrances, you may require other staff to not wear strong perfumes to work. You should also share any such directives relating to allergies with all new employees.

What are employer responsibilities relating to allergies in the workplace?

When it comes to allergies in the workplace, employers have a dual responsibility. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers must take all reasonable precautions to provide a hazard-free workplace for employees. Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, employers have a legal duty to accommodate a disability to the point of undue hardship. If an allergy is so acute that it impacts an employee’s ability to work, it may qualify as a disability.

How can employers best manage allergies in the workplace?

Proper policies and protocols addressing workplace allergies are very important for preventing the chances of a severe allergic reaction. Workers with an allergy should have the opportunity to sit down with their manager or employer and come up with an allergy action plan–should an emergency ever occur at work. This plan should include details, such as:

  • Their emergency contact
  • If they have an EpiPen, and where it is kept
  • At what point should 911 be dialed

Employers can also implement the following simple steps to reduce common allergens in their workplace:

  • Keep the office properly ventilated.
  • Find suitable replacements for absorbent materials (e.g., carpet) that collect dust and other allergens.
  • Create awareness (through webinars, talks, internal communication materials) on common allergens, recognizing signs of an allergic reaction, and avoiding triggers.
  • Provide a designated space for coats and other outdoor clothing. These articles of clothing can collect allergens and keeping them away from seated areas helps prevent allergens from spreading throughout the workplace.

How can employers support employees with severe allergies?

Employers should set a protocol to handle severe allergies that meet the criteria of a disability under the human rights law. It is recommended that you:

  • Speak to the employee and understand the medical repercussions of their condition.
  • Discuss possible options to accommodate the employee. For example, offering the employee another role or work location that reduces the risk. Or prohibiting foods into the workplace that may cause an allergic reaction.
  • Ensure you have taken reasonable precautions to provide an allergen-free work environment to the affected employee.
  • Keep a record of all discussions and steps taken to accommodate the employee.

What should employers include in a workplace exposure control plan?

If there is an allergen in the workplace, you must put safety controls in place to reduce the risk of exposure. To develop an effective exposure control plan, you must first conduct a risk assessment. Based on the risks identified, you must install hazard controls.

  • The best control is always to eliminate the hazard or substitute it with safer materials. For instance, if your employee has a severe latex allergy, you could protect the employee by replacing all latex products in the workplace with non-latex ones.
  • You could also consider making modifications to the workplace, equipment, or work procedures to reduce exposure. For example, ensuring proper ventilation or modifying work processes.
  • Providing safe work training and creating awareness about allergens, symptoms, and triggers through signage, posters, and pamphlets is another way to reduce risk.
  • Ensure your staff has access to and is trained on how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) (protective eye wear, protective clothing, gloves, etc.) effectively. PPE must always be used in combination with other safety controls.

Need help addressing allergies in the workplace?

Peninsula can help. Our HR experts can assist you in developing company policies, and with any other human resource managementhealth & safety, and employment advice you may need. To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call us today at  1 (833) 247-3652.

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