If you work in an office with a few hundred people, chances are thereís at least one person with a food allergy or intolerance among them. It can be tricky staying healthy and safe in a kitchen or break room frequented by dozens of people, but there are a few things coworkers and the allergic person can both do to keep the workplace a pleasant and safe environment.
If you know one of your coworkers has a food allergy or intolerance:
Keep things clean. When preparing food or eating in the office, wipe up any spills or crumbs. Not only is it good manners, youíll cut down on the chance of cross contamination. The cleaning staff will thank you, too.
Wash your hands after meals. If youíve been directly touching a food, chances are thereís a bit of it still left on your hands. Avoid smearing allergens around the office by washing your hands thoroughly with soap — and remember, hand sanitizer wonít remove the allergen from your skin. Itís a simple step that has the bonus of cutting down on your chances of catching whatever bug is going around the office.
Donít be offended if someone turns down offered food, even if you think itís probably ďsafe.Ē The problem is, cross contamination can and does happen in both home and professional kitchens. It isnít always disclosed on the packaging, and there are many ďhiddenĒ allergens which can go under a variety of names, and depending on the allergen, they may not need to be spelled out on the label. People with food allergies usually stick to specific brands they know are safe, so donít second-guess them if they tell you they donít want to take the risk on a treat you brought in from home.
Be understanding. Thereís nothing worse than confiding to a colleague about your medical condition and then being told itís ďweirdĒ or making insensitive remarks like ďI would rather be dead than go without gluten.Ē Asking for more details is fine, but if they seem uncomfortable, donít push the subject unless absolutely necessary. Many people with food allergies have experienced bullying and it may be a sensitive subject. Whatever you do, donít use the opportunity to tell them about a fad diet you recently discovered or speculate if their problem is psychological (both responses Iíve actually gotten when disclosing my gluten intolerance!).
If youíre planning an event, try to book a restaurant or venue that is able to provide alternate dishes for your allergic colleague. Ask to speak to the chef and find out if they take measures to prevent cross-contamination in their dishes. Ask if theyíre able to accommodate the specific allergies your colleague suffers from — not all restaurants are set up to deal with certain allergens, and itís better to find that out ahead of time than when youíre sitting down to order.
If youíre a supervisor or manager, and an employee tells you they have a food allergy:
Ask them to explain what they are allergic to and what kind of reaction they have. If itís not serious but will merely make them uncomfortable, try to be understanding. If theyíre at risk of a serious allergic reaction, sit down and make an emergency plan — find out if they have an Epipen available. If they have a food allergy which could be deadly, you might want to consider asking employees not to bring that item to work. (Donít worry — in most cases, this kind of extreme measure isnít necessary.)
Get their emergency contact information. Make sure your administrative staff have current contact information for their spouse or a family member, in case anything goes wrong and they have a serious reaction. In fact, this is probably a good idea for all of your employees!
Remember that their medical condition is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act – they have a right to a safe work environment even if itís a slight inconvenience to you, just as an employee who uses a wheelchair is entitled to ramps or elevators to make the building accessible.
Be mindful of requiring your employees to attend networking events or travel for work. Most employees will still be able to do these things, but they may require accommodations and they may need to start planning well in advance.
If you have food allergies yourself:
Let your coworkers and supervisors know. Food allergies and intolerances are so common that they probably wonít bat an eye. If they donít seem to take it seriously, try to explain what your reactions look like so they can appreciate the situation. If that doesnít work and they continue to put you at risk or ignore your needs at social events, ask for a letter from your allergist outlining appropriate steps for your employer to take.
If your allergies are severe or you use a shared kitchen, bring your own meals in sealed containers and consider bringing your own utensils or dishes. When I need to use dishes from my work kitchen, I scrub them down with dish soap (even if theyíre already clean) and wipe them down with a clean paper towel to avoid any gluten contamination from coworkers who may not have thoroughly cleaned the dishes after using them. Itís not the most eco-friendly solution, but itís safer than using a gross kitchen sponge with bits of questionable food stuck in it!
Donít be offended when coworkers offer you treats theyíve brought in. Itís inevitable that not everyone will know about your allergies and others may forget. Just politely decline any food that seems a little bit sketchy — and if theyíre bringing in packaged food, donít feel bad about checking the ingredients label before digging in. If they give you a hard time about it, just let them know itís a medical issue and move on.
Be proactive about company events. If youíre invited to a company barbecue, dinner, or potluck, be willing to ask about possible accommodations. If youíre not sure safe foods will be available, go ahead and pack some safe snacks just to be sure. Or you could volunteer to help plan the event, so you know there will be safe food available for you.
Be willing to answer questions about your allergy. Unless someone has close friends or family with a food allergy, they may not be familiar with your condition and might not know what to do to help keep you safe. Educating receptive colleagues is the best way to avoid future issues. Some of them may even ask what they should do in an emergency if you have an allergic reaction.
Stand up for yourself when necessary. If you have an airborne allergy and need people to avoid eating certain foods in the break room, let management know. If someone steals your ďsafeĒ lunch from home out of the company fridge, speak to management and be sure to let everyone know why this was a problem. If youíre simply encountering rude reactions from colleagues, try to educate them about your condition. If that doesnít work, speak to HR — bullying and harassment over a medical condition is never acceptable in a workplace environment and chances are youíre not the only person in your company with dietary restrictions.
All in all, handling a food allergy or intolerance in the workplace doesnít have to a big deal. Usually all it takes is good communication and a willingness to meet each other halfway to ensure a safe and pleasant work and social environment for everyone.
Photo credit: Victor1558 via Flickr