Science / Medicine : Are You Allergic to Your Work? Some Folks Are, Doctors Say


What job hazard might a baker, dentist and bartender share? Exposure to allergens that make them sneeze, wheeze or break out in a rash.

When choosing careers, few people consider whether they may be allergic to materials found at the workplace. But many on-the-job substances--ranging from rubber gloves to celery--can trigger allergic reactions that make workers’ lives uncomfortable, if not downright miserable.

“Work-related allergies are often misdiagnosed. Only in the last 10 years have they started to be taken seriously,” Dr. Robert Adams, a dermatology professor at Stanford University, said at a recent seminar.

Among the workers at particular risk for developing job-linked allergies are bakers. The problem is so widespread that wheezing caused by allergic reactions to flour and other baking ingredients has been dubbed “baker’s asthma.”


In addition to breathing difficulties, Adams said, bakers may develop skin rashes from exposure to dough, molasses, preservatives and certain flavorings and spices, particularly cinnamon.

Although not all skin problems stem from allergies, many do. That is significant in light of federal findings that skin disorders account for a third of all cases of chronic occupational disease. The annual cost of lost work time, medical care and disability payments related to skin disorders is estimated to be at least $222 million.

Bartenders often are plagued by the allergic skin reactions “extremely common among people who do wet work,” Adams said. Possible allergens for those who earn their living mixing drinks are lemon juice, aromatic bitters, glass cleaner and rubber gloves.

Rubber gloves are an allergy source for a wide variety of workers, including doctors, dentists, butchers, dairymen and kitchen employees. The threat of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and hepatitis has also prompted paramedics, firefighters and police officers to don gloves.

“A common reaction (to rubber gloves) is a hive-like condition on the hands known as contact urticaria, which causes severe itching,” said Adams, noting that hypo-allergenic and plastic gloves are available for people sensitive to chemicals in regular gloves.

Even people who work in office environments cannot evade job-related allergies.

University of Iowa doctors recently reported cases of clerical workers developing potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to carbonless copy paper. The researchers found that the resin used in such paper can trigger rashes, shortness of breath and swelling of the throat.

Allergens also lurk in the florist’s shop. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that alstroemeria, a bell-shaped flower commonly used in arrangements because it stays fresh so long, can cause severe, disabling skin reactions in floral workers. The ever-popular primrose can also cause rashes.