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How to Keep Your Workplace Safe for People with Food Allergies

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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.

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Photo credit: Victor1558 via Flickr

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55 comments

+ add your own
10:12AM PDT on Aug 28, 2013

I'm lucky enough not to have any serious allergy, but I've recently developed an intolerance to alcohol... Not a huge problem for me, as I already drank very little, but I already know some people will tease me for this, as if not drinking (even if it's for health issues) automatically makes someone a "loser".

@Ruby, have you ever told your colleague? I can't believe he deliberately did this, can he be that stupid?

7:29AM PDT on Aug 23, 2013

Common sense.

12:02AM PDT on Aug 15, 2013

noted

2:30PM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

makes good sense

11:23AM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

People should not be bullied or made to feel uncomfortable if they have an allergy- thanks for the article.

9:38AM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

Good article, good facts, helpful, thanks.

4:46PM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

Good to know.

9:20AM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

Thanks

8:29AM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

I have VERY severe nut allergy
I have the fact tattooed onto my wrist as I usually forget to wear my medic alert bracelet
And yet one of my colleagues insists on eating a giant Snickers bar on a Friday when around me as if he delights in watching me have an asthma attack due to the proximity of the nuts......

7:49AM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

Thanks for sharing.

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