Top tips for managing allergies at work

Health & Safety

44% of UK adults suffer from an allergy

According to charity Allergy UK,  44% of adults in the UK suffer from at least one allergy, and the number of sufferers is on the rise. Given these stats, employers need to manage allergies at work effectively, to support affected staff.

For those at greatest risk, the tiniest trace of an allergen can trigger severe symptoms and, in some cases, cause a fatal or near-fatal reaction.


Laura Milnes, our head of ergonomics, provides her top tips for managing severe allergies at work.

Tips for employers

  1. Communicate effectively with affected employees to establish the severity of their allergies, and the potential known triggers.
  2. Remember that an employee may develop an allergy during their employment, even if it wasn’t pre-existing when they originally joined.
  3. Maintain confidentiality about employees’ condition(s); speak to each affected employee to get their guidance on the support they may need, as well as taking medical advice.
  4. Identify reasonable adjustments where the allergy is classed as a disability.
  5. Educate relevant staff in first aid and the use of life-saving equipment to deal with the needs of specific allergies at work.

Tips for employees

  1. Disclose your allergies: it’s not an obligation, but it’s the smart thing to do. Managers and colleagues need to know you’re at risk in order to assist in case of emergency, and to help you avoid allergens.
  2. Always carry your medication with you.
  3. Teach others how to help you. Let them know the reality of living with allergies at work, and how they can help protect and assist you.
  4. Educate yourself; know where you can safely go/eat, and understand the risks involved. You’re your best protector, so remember it’s your job to protect yourself first.

Could allergies at work be considered a disability?

Under the Equality Act, a worker will be considered disabled if they can show that they suffer from a long term (i.e. over 12 months or more) physical or mental impairment which has a substantial (i.e. more than trivial) effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.Seasonal allergic rhinitis, such as hay fever, is expressly barred from being considered a disability in the Equality Act, except if it aggravates the effect of any other condition. Whether or not an employee with an allergy meets this definition will always come down to the individual facts.

There are several cases where employees with allergies have been held to be disabled:

 

In Glass v Promotion Line Ltd, an Employment Tribunal found that the employee’s eczema was a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act. In this case, the employee had to apply cream every morning and the process generally took an hour. The Tribunal held that it was a long-term physical impairment – she had suffered from the condition most of her life and it was likely she would continue to be affected by it for the rest of her life. It did have a significant impact on her ability to carry out day to day taks, such as to socialise or even leave her home.


Another case, Wheeldon v Marstons plcinvolved a chef with a life-threatening peanut allergy. He always carried adrenaline auto-injectors and had been in hospital on many occasions. When at work, he suffered a severe allergic reaction and he did not return to work. In this case, the employment tribunal found that his condition met the definition in the Equality Act.

These cases were decided on their individual merits; you cannot assume that everyone who has eczema, or a peanut allergy, will be considered disabled; the allergy will still need to meet the definition of having a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out everyday activities.

What are reasonable adjustments?

If an allergy amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

When taking into account what is ‘reasonable’, the statutory code of practice states that some of the factors which should be considered are:

  • Whether taking any particular steps would be effective in preventing the substantial disadvantage
  • The practicability of the step
  • The financial and other costs of making the adjustment
  • The type and size of the employer.

In Dyer v London Ambulance NHS Trust, the employment appeal tribunal (EAT) stated that providing a workplace free from aerosols and perfume was not a reasonable adjustment that the employer could make to accommodate an employee who could suffer from a life-threatening reaction to these products. The EAT found that imposing a ban would not have been reasonable given the nature of the role and the workplace.

While this case shows an extreme set of circumstances, in most cases some reasonable adjustments will be possible.


Examples of reasonable adjustments

Depending on the individual and their role, examples of typical adjustments in response to allergies at work might include:

  • Relocating the employee’s workstation away from the cause of the allergy
  • Finding the employee an alternative role within the organisation
  • Allowing the person with a disability to be absent for treatment or doctors’ appointments
  • Providing specific equipment or materials, e.g. non-latex gloves for someone with latex allergies, or non-toxic and unperfumed cleaning products and office supplies for an employee with asthma.

Conclusion

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974,  employers must ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ protect the health and safety of employees by removing or reducing workplace risks. Therefore, even if an employee doesn’t have a disability, employers may have to make a reasonable adjustment to accommodate their allergies at work.

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