The consultants on JAN’s sensory team frequently field questions regarding allergies and respiratory impairments. One common trigger for allergic reactions and respiratory distress is exposure to mold. Many employers are unsure of the appropriate steps to take upon learning that an employee has a sensitivity to mold. Is this an ADA issue? What accommodation options should be considered? These are just a couple of the questions employers may have while navigating the interactive process with an employee who is sensitive to mold.
What exactly is mold? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several thousand species of fungi that are classified as molds. Some of the most common species of molds include Cladosporium, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Aspergillus. Mold spores are present virtually everywhere, but mold growth is particularly plentiful in warm places with lots of moisture and humidity. Buildings that have been subjected to water damage are especially prone to mold growth.
Many employers who contact JAN are unsure whether mold sensitivity is considered a disability under the ADA. The ADA does not include a list of medical conditions that are considered disabilities. Rather, it contains a general definition of disability. Under the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Has a record of such an impairment; or
- Is regarded as having such an impairment.
In order to fall under the ADA’s protection, an individual must meet this definition. JAN provides additional guidance that may assist employers in making this determination.
The health consequences of mold exposure will vary from person to person. This means some individuals with mold sensitivity will meet the ADA’s definition of disability, and some will not. For those with relatively healthy immune systems, symptoms of exposure may be mild. The CDC states that the most common symptoms include nasal stuffiness, wheezing, coughing, and irritation to the eyes or skin. People who have respiratory impairments, mold allergies, or compromised immune systems may experience more severe symptoms. Individuals with asthma may be at increased risk for an asthma attack when exposed to mold. According to the Mayo Clinic, those with compromised immune systems may develop an allergic reaction or infection in the lungs after contact with Aspergillus spores. This disease, known as aspergillosis, can become very serious if the infection enters the blood vessels.
How can employers accommodate employees with mold sensitivity? Exposure to mold should be eliminated or reduced whenever possible. Mold remediation can be a good place to start. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers guidance on this process in its 2008 publication entitled Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings. If the employer chooses to continue operations during the cleanup, it may be appropriate to move the employee to another location, or allow the employee to telework until the mold has been removed. Temporary job restructuring, as well as leave time, may also be effective.
After remediation has occurred, the employer should take appropriate steps to prevent future mold growth. It is critical to identify and address sources of moisture within the workplace. Installing a dehumidifier can help to eliminate excess moisture in the air. An air purifier with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter may reduce the spread of allergens by trapping airborne mold spores. It can also be beneficial to consult with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) specialist to ensure optimum air quality within the building. You can find an industrial hygienist in your area by using the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Consultants Listing resource.
Masks can sometimes be an effective solution, but employers should consider this option carefully. While masks may work well for some employees, they pose significant concerns for others. Depending on the individual and the medical condition involved, masks may be contraindicated. We generally advise employees to consult with a medical provider to determine what options may be safe to use. Not all masks are created equal, and it’s important to choose an option that is designed to filter the irritant in question. Some employees may be uncomfortable with wearing a mask because it will be visible to others in the workplace. To avoid coercing employees into disclosing that they are receiving an accommodation, employers should not insist that employees use a mask unless an employee wishes to do so voluntarily. Employers should consider these factors when examining the effectiveness of this accommodation option.
It may be necessary to provide accommodations that allow the employee to manage symptoms if exposure does occur. The employee may benefit from additional breaks to use medication or get fresh air. A flexible schedule, including intermittent leave as needed, may also be effective.
Dealing with workplace mold can be challenging, but appropriate accommodations may help to ensure the safety, well-being, and productivity of employees. If you have further questions, feel free to contact JAN for an individualized consultation.