Sensitization in the Workplace

When it comes to workplace exposure, the rules for employers are relatively straightforward. When a workplace exposure issue is discovered, the onus is on the employer to investigate and control the source of the issue. This not only satisfies the employer’s legal obligation to safeguard employee health, but demonstrates commitment to maintaining a healthy and safe workplace. But what about workplace sensitivity issues?

Let me elaborate – allergic sensitization is an immunologic process that occurs within our bodies in response to repeat exposure to a sensitizing substance. Once exposed to an allergen (an allergy-causing agent) the body responds by generating antibodies – the immune systems defence mechanism against foreign invaders. Generation of antibodies in response to antigens is the fundamental mechanism for fighting disease – without the essential process we would not be able to fight off the common cold or go into a public space without contracting a devastating illness.

Sensitization or Allergic Reaction?

Most allergens do not illicit an innate immune response that results in an allergenic response. In most people, exposure to an allergen results in an immunological chain reaction that results in the generation of IgG antibodies, which serve a protective function. IgG antibodies quietly tidy up the detected allergens without causing any symptomatic response. Curiously, in some people, exposure to this same allergen causes a slightly altered immunological chain reaction that results in the generation of IgE antibodies.

Sick worker at desk sneezing IgE antibodies can be thought of as the body’s early alert system – these wonderful molecules bind to other cells, priming them to recognize the allergen of concern next time exposure occurs. This process of cell priming and subsequent immunological recognition is referred to as sensitization. For those individuals whose bodies react this way, allergic responses can be triggered by minor exposure to seemingly benign allergens. Why this happens to such a small subset of the population is unknown. Interestingly, several studies have indicated that allergen-specific sensitization differs by sociodemographic and regional factors, and that the probability of allergenic sensitization decreases with age. There also appears to be a hereditary factor in determining your risk of allergen-specific sensitization.

Sensitization: Employer Responsibilities

All this being said, what is an employer to do when allergenic sensitization rears its head in their workplace? Upon receiving a complaint from a worker that symptoms such as fatigue, respiratory irritation, watery eyes, etc. are plaguing them at work, the logical next step is to conduct an air quality assessment. All the usual suspects would be assessed – carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, mould, volatile organics. Often times, the culprit is identified, and the problem controlled through implementation of appropriate hazard control measures. But what if the air quality results do not identify any issues – what is the employer to do?

There is a myriad of potential allergens that have the potential to invade an office space – animal danders, food stuffs, cleaning products, glues, etc. Considering the allergic sensitivity response can be vastly different between individuals, how is an employer expected to identify or control allergens within their workplace? How can employers ensure they are doing their due diligence to safeguard their employee health and safety when the sensitization process is largely out of their control? Is sensitization a workplace health and safety issue at all? Some would argue no – considering the vast divergency of potential allergens and array of potential responses, managing them all is an intractable goal.

Where is the Line?

Ask a worker with sensitivity issues, and you’re sure to get a different opinion. Common allergens such as nuts and perfumes can be banned from the workplace, but where does this leave the worker with more elusive allergenic triggers? Is it the employer’s responsibility to solve every complaint from every worker? Where does the employer’s health and safety responsibility end?

Whichever way you look at it, sensitization is a topic that employers in a health and safety conscious workforce continue to struggle with. The line in the sand of responsibility on this issue can be blurry, akin to the vision of a sensitized worker. Perhaps confronting and addressing this issue head-on can help us all see a little clearer.

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