On This Page
An allergy is an inflammatory reaction that occurs when a person ingests, inhales, or touches a substance to which their body’s immune system has become sensitized. Common allergens include foods such as peanuts and tree nuts, animal-related materials such as pet dander, and airborne substances such as pollen.
The immune system of a person with allergies produces antibodies, which cause reactions that can range from itchiness, digestive distress, or inflamed sinuses to serious medical emergencies such as anaphylaxis. Allergies can be managed through various treatment options including medication, avoidance of substances to which one is allergic, and immunotherapy.
In addition, individuals sometimes refer to other conditions as "allergies." For example, an employee with reactive airway disease might say they are allergic to perfumes when in fact their airways react to perfumes due to their respiratory condition rather than an antibody reaction. Likewise, individuals with conditions such as dermatitis may describe themselves as allergic to the substances that cause them to experience skin irritation although they may not have a formally diagnosed allergy.
Allergies and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Accommodating Employees with Allergies
People with allergies have various limitations, depending on the type and severity of the allergy. Therefore, effective accommodations will vary. The following information provides suggestions for processing an accommodation request related to allergies and some general accommodations to explore. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.
Questions to Ask:
- Does the employee know what the specific allergen(s) is?
- Before accommodations can be fully explored, it is useful to find out what the specific allergen is. In some cases, the employee may not know, but may have a general idea.
- How is the allergy triggered?
- Many allergies are triggered by inhaling the allergen, but other types of triggers are possible such as the allergen touching the skin. In some cases, there might be more than one type of exposure at issue. Knowing how the allergy is triggered can help an employer explore accommodation options.
Questions to Consider:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
When accommodating employees with allergies, the main accommodation options include removing the allergen, removing the employee from where the allergen is located, or eliminating or reducing exposure to an acceptable level. It can also be useful to have a plan of action should exposure occur.
- Remove the Allergen:
- When possible, an employer should try to remove the allergen, especially if the allergen is unique to the work environment, minimal and/or the employer has control over it.
- Move the Employee:
- When it is not possible to remove the allergen or if the specific allergen is unknown, an employer may be able to move the employee away from the allergen. This usually means working at home or in a private office. Unless the employee wants to work at home, other options should be explored first to keep the employee in the workplace.
- Reduce Exposure:
- If the allergen cannot be removed and the employee cannot be moved completely away from the allergen, it may be possible to reduce the employee's exposure to an acceptable level. This usually means offering the employee a private office with optimal ventilation and minimum exposure to others. HEPA filtration may be useful in addressing air quality issues if the equipment selected is suitable both for the target allergen and the workspace. Additional accommodations to consider include allowing the individual to wear a mask or respirator or protective clothing. Some individuals can wear masks/respirators while others may not be able to wear them or be comfortable wearing them. Employers should keep in mind that they cannot force an employee to use a mask/respirator.
- Plan of Action:
- If there continues to be a risk of exposure, a plan of action may be needed. JAN provides a sample plan as a starting point.
Situations and Solutions:
An office worker with severe allergies was having reactions to cleaning wipes used during the pandemic.
The employee was given a private office space, allowed to clean the space with a different cleaner and provided a HEPA air purifier.
An employee with a severe allergy to bee stings asked to park closer to the worksite to avoid exposure.
Because of limited parking close to the worksite, the employer instead sprayed for bees in the parking lot and along the route to the worksite and developed a plan of action should a bee sting occur.
An employee with allergies to multiple allergens asked to bring her service animal to work to help with detecting and avoiding allergens.
The employer granted the request.
An employee was experiencing an allergic reaction to mold in the old building she worked in.
The employee was allowed to telework until the mold could be located and eradicated.
A social worker with an allergy to smoke asked not to work with clients who smoke.
It was not possible for the employer to only assign the social worker to non-smoking clients, so the employee was reassigned to a social work position that did not involve in-person contact with clients.