Allergies in the workplace: what HR needs to know

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Severe allergies are becoming more common so it's likely most organizations will be faced with employee allergy issues at some point. A recent Ontario arbitration decision clarifies how far you have to go to accommodate employees with serious allergies, even when it directly affects their job.

Severe allergies may be considered a disability, triggering an employee's duty to accommodate.

In Ontario Nurses Association v London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) arbitrator Christopher Albertyn assessed whether it was acceptable for the Centre to dismiss a nurse whose latex allergy was affecting her ability to do her job.

Hilda Calcutt's allergy first presented in 2010 but become gradually more severe, culminating in a serious reaction to touching a rubber band, which saw her admitted to emergency. Calcutt had reported her allergy to LHSC, and the organization took "reasonable precautions" by replacing latex products with alternatives and requiring Calcutt to carry an epi pen.

However, even with these precautionary measures, LHSC could not guarantee a latex-free environment. Following the nurse's last incident of exposure to latex, LHSC decided that it could no longer safely accommodate the nurse's allergy and refused to allow her to return to work.

Albertyn ordered the nurse to return to work in a non-nursing office position and to be paid the rate of pay for that position, rather than the rate of pay she would have been earning when she worked as a nurse.

Lessons for HR

It can be difficult to balance the obligation to accommodate and to ensure all your employees are working in a safe environment. This decision helps determine how to balance these obligations.

1. An employer's obligation to protect health and safety does not require the elimination of all possible conceivable risks.

2. Transferring a disabled employee to a new position that minimizes health and safety risks can be a good step to balance obligations.

3. When assessing allergy claims, follow standard best practices. Ask for all relevant medical information, collaborate with the employee for a solution and document the process.

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