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Are you allergic to work?

31 October 2012

With research showing that we spend up to 90 per cent of our time indoors,(1) Allergy UK undertook a detailed survey which focused on the prevalence of allergies within the work environment to support the charity’s promotion of healthy indoor environments. Here, PFM examines the results of ‘Work Fever’ and looks at allergen avoidance within the work place.

Allergy risk environments – Aged care

Currently, the UK is one of the top three countries in the world for the highest instances of allergy(2) with over 21 million UK adults suffering from some kind of allergic reaction.(3) Allergic conditions such as asthma, rhinitis and eczema have trebled over the last 20 years(4) and currently 40 per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults have one or more of these three allergic conditions(4).

National charity Allergy UK, estimates that at least 5.7 million people could be allergic to their workplace and has identified a number of possible causes, which are directly linked to the way we live today. One of the most common causes of asthma and allergies is the exposure to house dust mites in soft furnishings and carpets encouraged by a greater reliance on the use of central heating in offices.

With this in mind, Forbo Flooring Systems has been working with Allergy UK to carry out research amongst office workers, primarily allergy sufferers, to establish how commonplace ‘work fever’ is. The results show that from nasal problems, eye conditions, dry throats, breathing difficulties, lethargy, headaches and skin irritations; 95 per cent of those questioned had experienced one or more of these symptoms in the office, with 78 per cent of the sample reporting that their symptoms were worse, or sometimes worse, in the office environment. However, alarmingly over half of the group surveyed had experienced an allergic reaction whilst at work.

Maureen Jenkins, Allergy Nurse Consultant BSc (Hons); RN; NP Dip; Asthma Dip spokesperson for Allergy UK reports: “The results are of concern for Allergy UK because it is difficult for individuals to exercise the same control over their work place. 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.

“Much has been reported about Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), the condition which focuses on the frequency of symptoms in buildings due to indoor climate problems and chemical exposure. But Allergy UK has long been concerned about how the workplace and how the office environment actually impacts allergy sufferers.”

Indeed, SBS is a poorly understood phenomenon where people in particular work environments have a range of non-specific, building-related symptoms. Research into SBS shows anyone can be affected, however office workers are most at risk. This is because people who work in offices do not usually have control over their working environment. Possible risk factors for SBS may include among others, airborne pollutants, such as dust, pet allergens or fungal spores.

The real area of concern resulting from the research is that 42 per cent of allergy sufferers took time off work because of their allergy. 14 per cent of sufferers actually took between four and ten days off sick because of their allergy, figures that could be addressed by actively minimising allergens in the workplace.

It is therefore an issue that shouldn’t be ignored by facility managers for commercial, educational or healthcare sectors - in fact any place where people are likely to spend a prolonged period. Due to its large surface area, a key factor maintaining the indoor environment is the performance characteristics of the chosen floorcovering, as well as efficient and regular cleaning. Specifying the right flooring that will be of benefit for allergy sufferers and will certainly help to create healthier indoor environments for all. For asthma and allergy sufferers this guarantees a more comfortable interior environment.

The most suitable floorcoverings carry the Allergy UK ‘Seal of Approval’, which is awarded to products that restrict, reduce or remove allergens from the environment of the allergy sufferer. For asthma and allergy sufferers this certainly creates a more comfortable interior environment. Indeed, specifying a floorcovering that has naturally bacteriostatic properties like linoleum, or those that have highly effective integral anti-microbial treatments, such as Sanitised®, also offers constant protection against varying forms of bacteria.

Additionally, regular cleaning will result in a more hygienic interior environment. Keeping floor surfaces free from dust, dirt and grime by spot cleaning and dust mopping will help contribute to a healthy interior climate.

In fact, the survey revealed that cleaning of offices is fairly infrequent and does not appear adequate enough to prevent the build up of house dust mites and allergens, with 37 per cent reporting their office is cleaned just once a week or less. Approximately 20 per cent of respondents are spending eight hours or more at work so the combination of visibly dusty and cluttered desks, soft furnishings, poorly vaccumed carpets and a lack of ventilation is not conducive to a healthy working environment.

Being a natural floor covering with a low environmental impact – made predominantly from harvestable, natural raw materials – Linoleum’s versatility means that it is regularly specified for a range of sectors, but it is its naturally bacteriostatic properties, that make it a favourite for sensitive indoor environments.

The report highlights the areas of real concern for those with allergies and the affect these can have on productivity and indeed sickness in the workplace. For facility managers and staff, the impact of flooring should not be underestimated as part of a package of allergen avoidance actions, when considering a healthy interior environment. A little careful planning of product specification and the implementation of regular cleaning procedures will help to minimise risks and therefore reduce allergens in the workplace.


To download a copy of Allergy UK’s ‘Work Fever’ survey results please visit http://www.allergyuk.org/allergy-reports/allergy-reports.

References

(1) The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality, US EPA/Office of Radiation & Indoor Air, 1995
(2) Allergic Invasion, 1999
(3) Mintel 2010
(4) Allergy The Unmet Need: a blueprint for better care, Royal College of Physicians (London) 2003

Examples of ‘anti-allergy’ floorings
Marmoleum, Forbo’s linoleum brand, has a smooth surface that does not harbour dust mites. Additionally, the resilient properties of Marmoleum mean it is hygienic, anti-static and easily cleaned thanks to Topshield, a water-based finish, which provides inherent protection of the flooring system.

Flotex, another Allergy UK approved product, offers the texture and warmth of carpet, yet its composition, made up from millions of electrostatically flocked fibres, offers the hard-wearing and washable characteristics of a resilient floor. Tests show that twice as many allergens can be removed from Flotex on vacuuming compared to conventional carpets. It provides an alternative for allergy sufferers who have had to previously steer clear of textile flooring.


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