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Allergy Today: Occupational Allergies

Occupational allergies are a type of occupational disease, which is defined by the World Health Organisation as “any disease contracted primarily as a result of an exposure to risk factors arising from work activity”.

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) has launched a campaign focused on raising awareness of occupational allergies. They see these as being among the most frequently reported occupational disease type.iStock-1002281268-916

According to EAACI, “a large number of workers are restricted in work attendance due to allergic symptoms or asthma. At the same time, a multitude of patients develop allergies due to specific exposure at their workplaces. With more than 300 agents described as occupational allergens, and the number constantly increasing, this presents a critical challenge for workers’ quality of life.”

Key factors in the development of occupational allergies are the level and duration of exposure to the allergenic agent concerned. Once an allergy is developed, they are long-term and can have a significant impact on quality of life including, potentially, loss of employment.   

Two of the best-known occupational allergies are to latex (a derivative of the rubber plant) and bee venom. The risk of developing latex allergy is known to increase with frequent exposure, and most people allergic to latex have had frequent exposure over many years. In the past, the majority were healthcare workers, such as nurses, doctors and dentists who were exposed to latex in gloves and equipment in their workplaces. Symptoms of latex allergy can range from allergic contact dermatitis (skin reactions) through to anaphylaxis.

However, once this risk was identified and non-latex gloves were supplied as an alternative, the prevalence in healthcare workers has reduced. Allergy New Zealand is still concerned at others being at risk in workplaces where latex gloves are widely used, such as in the hospitality sector and other industries. We are also concerned at the lack of regulations around the labelling of latex in products, making it a difficult allergen to avoid.

It is also known there is a higher rate of bee venom allergy in those involved in bee-keeping, than in the general population (hypersensitivity to insect stings occurs in up to a third of beekeepers compared to 5-7.5 per cent of the population). While most people will have a mild reaction from stings (e.g. localised itch and swelling), a bee venom allergy is one of the most common causes of anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening reaction.
EAACI has also found that occupational allergy is on the rise, with new allergens, new work processes, country-specific differences and significant unmet needs in terms of gender and age. Their concerns include:
  • Large gaps in tools for early and targeted diagnostics, as well as for monitoring allergen exposure at the workplace.
  • Significant disparity between perception of occupational allergies and the importance for the public health system.
  • Too few internationally-recognised occupational exposure limits for allergens in the workplace, meant to protect against the development of sensitisation or allergic reactions.
To read more, go to: EAACI Advocacy - World Day for Safety and Health at Work | EAACI.org
Similar concerns exist for New Zealand, with a lack of monitoring meaning little is known about the impact of occupational allergies here. Work Safe NZ discontinued the Notifiable Occupational Disease System (NODS) in 2018, stating the NODS was; “a little-used notification system, for individuals to inform us of their work-related ill-health…and the NODS data was not able to be used purposefully.” They advise that “if anyone is concerned about the reporting of their occupational disease, please be advised that your doctor or nurse should have notified ACC of the illness, which is where the data will be held”.

However, ACC categorises claims for work-related injury that happen over time as ‘complicated’, which may make it difficult for some people to get their claims processed.
Allergy New Zealand is interested in hearing from people who have developed occupational allergies and would be willing to share their experiences. Please email
allergy@allergy.org.nz Attention: Penny J.

Penny Jorgensen
Allergy Advisor

April 2021

References

WHO | Occupational and work-related diseases
 Work Safe NZ
Occupational disease notifications - no longer received | WorkSafe
ACC
Injuries we cover (acc.co.nz)
Latex allergy - Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)

Allergy Today, May 2021