Updated 13 July 2015

3 million South Africans allergic to workplace

A new survey suggests that over 3 million South Africans who work in offices may be experiencing worse symptoms when they're in the workplace.


A staggering 3.6 million South African office workers could be experiencing increased allergy symptoms in the workplace.

This is the number according to a just-released survey conducted by prevention-minded allergy pharmaceutical firm, Pharma Dynamics. 

Of the 1 300 survey respondents, polled nationally, more than a quarter said their allergies worsened when at the office and almost half (42%) took time off work because of their allergies. 

Wilmi Hudsonberg, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics blames poor ventilation and lack of cleanliness for increased allergy symptoms in SA office environments.

“Many studies have been done in the past around Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), a condition which focuses on the frequency of illness-related symptoms in buildings due to improper climate control and chemical exposure. As an allergy pharmaceutical company chiefly concerned about the well-being of those prone to allergies, Pharma Dynamics set out to determine to what extent the office environment actually impacts the health of allergy sufferers,” she says. 

The most reported allergy symptoms at work include a blocked or stuffy nose (62%), headache (61%), runny nose (54%), unexplained fatigue (52%), itchy or watery eyes (52%), dry throat (37%) and breathing difficulties (16%).

“The management of allergies become much more difficult when in a shared office environment where one has little control, so it’s not surprising that so many have experienced an allergic reaction at work. Considering that most of us spend more than 8 hours in the office a day, it’s helpful to know where exactly the allergy hotspots are in the office.” 

According to Hudsonberg, both the printer and photocopier emit fumes which could be harmful to your health. Almost half (47%) of respondents that participated in Pharma Dynamics’ survey indicated that they sit less than one metre away from a printer and 33% sit in close proximity of a photocopier.

A staggering 77% said their offices aren’t well ventilated. “Fresh air is vital to the health of office workers, so ensure that windows are opened (where it doesn’t pose a safety risk) and/or that fresh air trickles in through air vents or allergy-approved air conditioning units. While over half (53%) of survey participants reported that their office is air conditioned, it’s important to note that many of these units aren’t adequate. To allergy-proof your air conditioner, check that it captures airborne allergens, and ensure that it is cleaned and serviced regularly, otherwise it can pollute the air.

“Equally hazardous to allergy sufferers is dust mite”, she says, “which thrives on carpets, blinds, curtains and other soft furnishings. Books too can collect dust mite.” More than 55% of respondents said their workplace has carpeted floors and 35% have open bookshelves. 

The ideal office flooring according to Hudsonberg is solid flooring, such as hardwood, linoleum or tiles since it’s easy to clean and doesn’t trap allergens. 

She recommends that office plants are kept to a minimum as mould can grow on top of the soil. Thirty-three percent of respondents have plants in their workplace. 
Even a colleague can set off an allergic reaction she warns. “With many modern-day offices being open-plan, we are exposed to colleagues who live with pets or reside in areas where pollen counts are high. Pet dander and pollen can stick to office workers’ clothes and can easily trigger a sneezing frenzy in a person sensitive to these allergens.

Certain perfumes and air-fresheners can also cause a reaction.” The survey found that 54% of office workers sit close to a colleague, increasing the odds of an allergy attack. 

“These office allergy triggers can have serious repercussions, especially for those prone to rhinitis and asthma. Lack of fresh air, cluttered desks, dusty surfaces and poorly vacuumed carpets all add to an unhealthy work environment. Our survey found that most SA offices are cleaned irregularly, with only a third being cleaned daily, which poses a risk.

A management plan in the workplace is of utmost importance to control allergy symptoms and to lessen the impact on productivity,” emphasises Hudsonberg. 
Of those surveyed, 59% suffer from rhinitis, 28% reacts to dust mite, 21% have food allergies, 18% suffer from eczema and 19% have asthma. 

For more advice on workplace allergies, visit our Allergy Expert

Pharma Dynamics is one of the leading generic pharmaceutical companies in South Africa


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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