How to Handle Food Allergies in the Workplace

Food allergies are on the rise. Here’s how to accommodate workers who have them — and foster an inclusive workplace by doing so.

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handling food allergies in workplace

According to the Mayo Clinic, over the last few decades the number of children in the United States with a peanut allergy has tripled. While scientists are still working to figure out exactly why, the impacts are happening here and now. Today, roughly 26 million adults in the United States have a food allergy. This means that food allergies have certainly found their way into the workplace.

There’s tons of advice out there on what people with food allergies can do to protect themselves at work. People with allergies can alert their supervisors as soon as they’re hired and can talk it through with coworkers who can help support them and more.

But as allergies continue to increase, it’s time for employers to think about what they can do to help their employees who suffer from food allergies. Thinking about how you can best support workers with food allergies is a worthwhile endeavor. Especially if you want to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce, allergies are something you should be thinking about now.

Ensure that you have open lines of communication

The first thing an employer needs to do is make sure that their employees feel comfortable coming to them with issues. You’ll never know how many of your employees are stressing out about food contamination every day if they don’t feel comfortable bringing it up to you.

Next, allergy disclosures seriously. For people without food allergies, they can seem like a small thing. But considering the sky-high cost of EpiPens alone, contact with an allergen is a serious situation for people with food allergies. If someone discloses an allergy to you, that’s your cue to start a conversation about what you can do to accommodate them. The goal is for everyone to feel safe at work.

If someone discloses an allergy to you, that’s your cue to start a conversation about what you can do to accommodate them. The goal is for everyone to feel safe at work.

Ask them what you can do to help

Sometimes accommodating an employee with a food allergy can be as simple as asking them what you can do to meet their needs. Perhaps your employee would like an extra EpiPen stored at work so they don’t have to remember bring one every day. Maybe they’d like to have their own separate set of dishes and utensils at work.

Based on what the employee tells you, consider going the extra mile. If you can swing it and the employee is comfortable with it, you could even get them their own mini fridge. That way your employee can store their food separately without any worry of cross contamination.

Finally, be understanding. People with medical conditions often require time off to manage their ailment through medical visits and the like. Be flexible if an employee with a food allergy needs extra time off.

Don’t forget, though, that you can’t ask employees for details about their disability (more on that in a minute). It can be a fine line to walk especially if you’re looking to understand as much as you can in an effort to be as helpful as possible. But it’s best to ensure that you’re not prying or pressing for details that your employee is not comfortable sharing.

Make necessary accommodations

employers should ensure that all company events, both on-site and off-site, are allergy friendly.

Not only is making accommodations the right thing to do, it can also be what you’re legally required to do. Food allergies can constitute a legally protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Depending on the severity of the allergy, you might accommodate it by banning certain foods from the office and establishing consequences for employees who don’t comply. Making accommodations can also mean providing a separate set of dishes and utensils for workers with allergies that stay separate from the rest of the foodware stock.

Employers can also consider making exceptions to company policies for workers with allergies, allowing them to eat at their desk or even work from home if that’s the best option. You could also designate a part of the office, kitchen, or break room as peanut-free. Of course, it’s on the employer to carry out the notification and enforcement of policies like these through communications, signage, and more.

Additionally, employers should ensure that all company events, both on-site and off-site, are allergy friendly. This might mean making special travel or hotel accommodations when work travel is necessary. However, thanks to the rise of peanut allergies, many service providers are ready to accommodate food allergies as long as you let them know ahead of time.

Finally, consider offering company-wide training regarding food allergies. Trainings can cover anything from how to decrease cross-contamination to what to do if a coworker has an allergic reaction. A little education can go a long way.

It’s better to be prepared

Even if you don’t have an employee with a food allergy (that you know of) in the office now, chances are you will in the future. It never hurts to be prepared, right?

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