Allergies in the Workplace
Every year 10,000 workdays are lost due to employees suffering from allergies. “Allergies are usually not directly caused by work conditions, but have an enormous effect on a company’s bottom line,” explains M. W., M.D., medical director of OccNet, the occupational health service of the Health Alliance. The staggering cost to U.S. companies is anywhere between $250 million to $6 billion a year! A study by the American Journal of Managed Care discovered that allergies resulted in $1.4 billion in lost productivity for female workers and $2.4 billion for male workers.
Allergy affliction runs much deeper than the common runny nose or watery eyes. Lack of sleep caused by allergies can lead to general fatigue, listlessness, weakness, and exhaustion, which in turn impair employees’ abilities to perform normal work and social functions. Unlike afflictions with similar symptoms, such as the flu, there is no getting over an allergy.Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is the most common allergy in the workplace, with 12.6 million sufferers. These numbers are more than those who suffer from back aliments (8.5 million) and about the same as high blood pressure (13 million). Hay fever affects a company’s bottom line in a variety of ways. First, an employee may take a sick day due to illness. Second, the employee may go to work but perform at a sub-standard level. In addition to this, there are safety concerns. Over-the-counter allergy medications carry labels that warn they may cause drowsiness. Employers and workers should take into consideration that heavy manufacturing positions and jobs requiring driving can be ripe for disasters at the hands of employees performing below level because of drowsiness.Because allergies rarely pose life-threatening problems, benefits management often ignores allergies. But to ignore allergies is to ignore a problem that devours billions of dollars in this country. Employee education is key to reducing the consequences of allergy in the workplace, including:
- General information on the causes and symptoms of allergies
- How to recognize allergy symptoms before they become debilitating
- The difference between antihistamines and decongestants, and sedating and non-sedating drugs
- When to seek professional help and when to self-medicate
- How to reduce or eliminate allergens through lifestyle changes
There are numerous ways to distribute this information. Wellness and prevention programs, for instance, can offer lunchtime lectures supplemented with supporting literature. Posters, paycheck flyers and newsletter articles can also be utilized to communicate this message. On the medical side, employers in managed care programs can request that physicians participate in identifying and educating patients, and work with allergists as needed. Employers with on-site medical services can facilitate employee education by offering literature and counseling to persons seeking over-the-counter antihistamines. By simply becoming aware of this potentially large problem, employers take the first step toward reducing illness and its associated cost.
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