Employers respond as allergies become more prevalent at work.

Employers respond as allergies become more prevalent at work.

With a sneeze and wheeze, allergies appear to be a growing problem for people in the workplace, presenting legal questions for their employers in the process.

Attorneys specializing in employment law say companies need to be aware that allergies can be considered disabilities under the far-reaching Americans with Disabilities Act. That means they need to make a good-faith effort to work with employees and provide accommodations that enable them to do their jobs.

That could mean everything from providing air purification systems for people with rhinitis to banning foods that trigger allergic reactions in the company lunchroom and at business functions.

"If it's a serious impairment," says Samuel Lillard, of counsel at the Columbus office of Fisher Phillips LLP, "an allergy can qualify as a disability and the employer is required to provide accommodations so the employee can do the essential functions of the job."

That has increasingly been the case since Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to make it more difficult for employers to deny disability adjustments for workers. Lillard, who has been advising on ADA issues for more than 20 years, says the focus for employers has shifted from fighting over whether someone qualifies for special accommodations to helping them find a way to remain on the job.

Employers aren't required to do anything until an employee brings an allergy problem to their attention. Once that occurs, Lillard says the employer needs to sit down with the employee, figure out what is being requested and determine whether the allergic condition can be accommodated in a way that doesn't create an undue hardship for the business or organization.

"When an employee says there is a problem," he advises, "I want the employer to say, 'How can I help you?'"

Nasal allergies alone affect about 50 million Americans, including as many as 30 percent of adults, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in Landover, Md. The foundation says the incidence of allergies is rising and poses a significant cost for businesses and their employees through missed work days and higher medical costs. In addition, a study cited by the Harvard Business Review says employers in the United States lose approximately $150 billion in productivity a year due to the impact of allergies in the workplace.

"A lot of people underestimate the impact that allergies have on productivity in the workforce," says Dr. Arnaldo Perez, an allergy and immunology specialist at Premier Allergy in Columbus.

He has seen an increase in the number of adult allergy sufferers among his patients, even ones in their 60s. Research has not determined a reason for that rise, Perez says, but there is speculation it could be related to bacteria-killing soaps and cleaners that may alter the immune system or medications that affect bacteria in the digestive tract.

The good news, he says, is there are multiple treatments to help allergy sufferers. Among them are oral antihistamines, intranasal steroids and immunotherapy involving allergy shots.

In addition, Perez says businesses with allergy-suffering employees can help them by maintaining "a generally healthy environment" in the workplace. That can include regular cleaning of carpets to control dust mites, taking steps to eliminate mold growth and installing air purifiers to reduce dust levels.

There are certain work environments with well-identified allergens that affect workers, says Dr. Debora Ortega-Carr with Midwest Allergy in Columbus. Healthcare workers in particular seem to be affected, whether it's being allergic to latex gloves, medical products or animals in research settings. Agricultural workers can have allergic reactions to dust and mold spores in grain silos. Wheat protein and enzymes can set off symptoms in bakers and flour mill workers, while some woodworkers are allergic to western red cedar.

Ortega-Carr says it is important that employers take employee complaints about allergies seriously and address them "in a reasonable way." Workers can also turn to their doctors for help to cope with their allergies and keep them on the job.

"We've made a lot of headway in our ability to identify the allergens and being aggressive in environmental control and immunotherapy," she says.

Employers should looks for ways to minimize allergens in their workplaces, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes an employee's adverse reaction to their work surroundings, says Betsy Swift, a partner with Bricker & Eckler in Columbus who focuses on employment law issues.

"This isn't necessarily a science or a book you can go to for reasonable accommodations (for allergies)," she says. "It's kind of trial and error. Under the ADA, you have to look at each employee on a case-by-case basis."

Swift says employers can ask for medical documentation to confirm the allergic condition that an employee claims to have. They can also ask the employee's doctor about what seems to trigger the allergic reaction and for suggestions on reasonable accommodations for the worker.

Employers should also know it is difficult to prove that providing accommodations for workers with allergies is an undue hardship on their business. "But in some circumstances," Swift says, "you can't create an environment where you remove every chemical an employee is exposed to at work. The cost is too great or it may not be realistic."

Her best advice to employers is to talk to employees with allergies about finding a reasonable way to keep them working and productive.

"Let's find out as much as we can about the irritants the employee has, how they appear in the workplace and how we can minimize them," Swift says. "It's really a multi-step process, and it's not completely scientific."

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.