The summer holiday season is officially over and the nation is knuckling down to work. But a national charity is warning that the office could actually be bad for our health.
Allergy UK, a leading national medical charity, estimates that at least 5.7 million people could be allergic to their workplace.
Allergy UK carried out research[i] amongst office workers, primarily allergy sufferers, to establish how commonplace ‘work fever’ is.
From nasal problems, eye conditions, dry throats, breathing difficulties, lethargy, headaches and skin irritations, 95% of those questioned had experienced one or more of these symptoms in the office. But over a quarter (27%) said their symptoms were worsened by their office environment.
A significant number, 62% of respondents had experienced itchy or watery eyes, and 27% breathing difficulties over the last year in their office.
Alarmingly, over half of the group surveyed had experienced an allergic reaction whilst at work.
Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services, Allergy UK, said: “The results are of concern because it is difficult for individuals to exercise the same control over their workplace as they would do at home. Management of allergies becomes increasingly difficult when in communal spaces, so it’s not surprising that a great deal of allergy sufferers have experienced a reaction at work.”
Office Hot Spots
According to Allergy UK there are numerous ‘hotspots’ around the office that can have huge implications for allergy sufferers:
Lack of ventilation: the majority of those with prevalent symptoms at work do not consider their office to be well ventilated. Of the overall sample, only 15% said their office was well ventilated.
- Carpets: 90% of office workers surveyed reported their workplace has carpeted floors, but carpets and soft furnishings can harbour house dust mite allergen.
- Bookcases: 54% said they had open bookshelves, which when you remove books or items from the shelves, could disturb any dust that has collected, and can release the allergen into the atmosphere.
- Plants: 38% have plants in the office which can harbour moulds. Moulds release spores and it is these spores that cause allergic reactions.
But even the people we are surrounded by in the workplace can trigger a reaction. 34% of respondents had a pet allergy; and could react to allergens (pet dander) brought in on people’s clothes, especially cat allergen. 61% of the office workers questioned sat within a metre of someone else, making the risk even greater.
The survey showed that cleaning of offices is infrequent and doesn’t appear adequate enough to prevent the build up of house dust mites and allergens. 37% said their office is cleaned just once a week or less, while a worrying 17% (nearly one in five) said their office is cleaned infrequently.
20% of respondents spent eight hours or more at work. Combine this with visibly dusty and cluttered desks, soft furnishings, poorly vacuumed carpets and a lack of ventilation and it is not conducive to a healthy working environment.
Allergies don’t just have an impact on the employee. According to the research, they are also having a significant effect on productivity.
73% of those questioned took time off sick in the last 12 months; the majority of the workforce has had some form of sickness in the last year, which is not unusual.
However, the real area of concern is that 42% of allergy sufferers took time off work because of their allergy. 14% of sufferers actually took between four and ten days off sick due to their allergy, figures that could be addressed by actively minimising allergens in the workplace.
There are steps that both employees and employers can take to reduce the likelihood of an allergic reaction at work.
To prevent this figure from rising, Allergy UK believes more people need to understand what causes indoor allergies, such as house dust mite allergen, mould spores and pet dander and be able to recognise the symptoms:
Ventilation is extremely important. Whether it is windows, trickle vents or an air conditioning system. Ensure that you have clean air in and around you. If however you have hay fever sufferers in the office, keep windows closed for the first part of the morning and also late afternoon
- If you have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) unit installed, make sure it is regularly serviced
- If ventilation is limited, use an effective air purifier to help remove and reduce allergens such as pollen, house dust mite debris and mould spores.
- Review flooring and furnishings. Carpets on concrete floors can trap moisture allowing dust mites and mould spores to thrive. Opt for a smooth or flocked Allergy UK approved flooring that has been scientifically tested by Allergy UK and awarded the Seal of Approval.
- Ensure that plants are regularly watered and the top soil removed regularly to avoid moulds, or cover with pea shingle
- Ensure office cleaners have effective cleaning methods and equipment such as a HEPA vacuum cleaner that will ensure that pollens and allergens are trapped adequately
- Take control of your personal desk environment, keep it clear and uncluttered and damp dust twice a week
- Hang coats away from the desk and ‘traffic’ areas to prevent dust and allergens from being disturbed and released into the air
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day and always ensure that you take your prescribed preventative medication if you have asthma, rhinitis or eczema.
The research was funded by Forbo Flooring, whose Flotex & Marmoleum flooring products have been awarded the Allergy UK Seal of Approval.