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msnbc.com

Life can get difficult when allergies bring on itchy eyes, stuffy noses and sneezing episodes. But just when you thought mornings couldn’t get any worse and enjoying the outdoors wasn’t that big of a loss, allergies show up again — at work.

Allergies at work can come from many sources. If you’re allergic to pets, pet dander can attach to the clothing of your pet-owning colleagues and travel to the office.

Copy machines, printers and computers produce allergy-causing dust, while leaks and poor ventilation systems form mold. And of course, symptoms from ordinary seasonal allergies don’t stop during working hours.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, about 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, the sixth leading cause of chronic disease.

Allergies not only cost the health care system about $18 billion a year, but reports indicate that allergies cause a decrease in productivity in the workplace. The Allergy Report by the AAAAI reveals that approximately 4 million days each year are lost at work and school because of allergies.

Help is on the way
For many allergy sufferers, help may be on the way as employers begin paying more attention to employee allergies. While negative effects on productivity are catching the attention of many companies, a rise in mold lawsuits across the United States is also persuading some employers to make a committed effort to prevent and treat allergy problems in the workplace.

Even though not all allergies are related to the work building, an employer is still responsible for them, says Chris Schneider, president of 1Source Safety and Health, Inc., a health management and consulting company that works mainly with office settings, homes, schools and health care facilities.

Learn how allergic reactions occurIn Rochester, N.Y., Kodak has taken its own steps to help employees deal with allergies. Located in the northeastern United States, the Rochester community deals with huge amounts of ragweed allergies. To minimize symptoms, Kodak has a network of self-care centers on its campus that provides information and safe medications for employees to use on the job. The company also carefully identifies every chemical used in the workplace, says Kodak Medical Director Dr. Andrew Vaughn. When someone does have a problem, steps are taken to quickly spot and fix the problem, says Vaughn.

Prevention is cheaper
If employees notice that allergy symptoms only exist or worsen during work, they should see an allergist to confirm and identify the specific type of allergy. Safety consultants can then conduct tests to identify the source and cause, says Schneider, whose company also provides general sampling surveys that identify allergens.

However, companies can take a more efficient step by preventing allergies before they cause problems. The AAAAI’s Allergy Report encourages businesses to focus on allergy prevention if the following situations arise:

  • Incidences of allergic reactions increase.
  • Costs associated with allergies increase.
  • Morbidity associated with allergic diseases increase.

The health care and auto body industries are both professions that have initiated solutions. For many health care workers who faced latex allergies, hospitals resolved the problem by eliminating latex in their facilities.

Painters in auto-body shops, who are at high risk of allergic reactions, are also receiving better protection, says Dr. William Beckett, professor of medicine and environmental medicine at the University of Rochester.

Regular cleaning and building maintenance can reduce dust mites or other substances carried in by employees. Maintaining a high quality of indoor air may not only decrease allergy symptoms, but lower the risks of other respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Staying awake--safely
Medication can be a great source for help in dealing with allergies, but employees should be cautious about which ones they take while working. Employees who take over-the-counter or doctor-prescribed medications for their allergies should always use non-drowsy formulas. Staying awake at work not only helps employees keep their jobs, but also prevents any physical hazards to themselves or co-workers.

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According to Vaughn, Kodak selectively provides allergy shots for qualified employees. In addition, the company’s self-care centers supply safe, non-drowsy medications for employees to take while on the job.

Semiconductor manufacturer Intel has also taken steps to ensure employee safety.

“We are working closely with the appropriate internal folks to ensure that the right prescription choices are offered,” says Intel corporate affairs manager Gail Dundas.

Allergies at work can cause problems for both employees and employers by impacting productivity and hurting the bottom line, not to mention creating uncomfortable job situations. Working together to prevent allergies will save time and money, experts say, and ultimately, help clear up those itchy eyes and stuffy noses.

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