Navigating Food Allergies in the Workplace

Navigating Food Allergies in the Workplace

Over the past few years, bills addressing the dangers of food allergies have been introduced into the state governments of Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania – and yes, Georgia -just to name a few.

You’re probably not surprised to learn that the legislation would place legal obligations on day care teachers, school bus drivers, and restaurant managers to undergo food allergen training or maintain a stash of EpiPens.

But, you might be surprised to learn that under our existing State Worker’s Compensation Laws, an allergic reaction to food may be considered a workplace exposure in certain circumstances.

Did you know that food allergies may also be considered a disability under federal laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in certain circumstances?

The bottom line is that when it comes to food allergies, our existing federal laws place some responsibility on employers to ensure the safety of their employees.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimates that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. Chances are if you don’t suffer from a food allergy yourself, you work with someone who does.

When you hear the words “food allergy” your mind might generate buzz words like “peanuts!” “EpiPen!” or “gluten-free!” But, in reality, there is a vast spectrum of foods known to cause allergies and dozens of possible allergic responses.

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The foods that most commonly cause an allergic reaction are eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shell fish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat. But people may be allergic to other foodstuffs too.

Allergic reactions present themselves in many different ways depending on the severity of the allergy. Watch out for a tingly or itchy feeling in the mouth or throat, wheezing, trouble swallowing, or hives. An allergy may also cause swelling of the tongue and face, dizziness, or anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction that impairs the breathing and may send the body into shock).

You can’t assume that employees will share their allergies with you, their supervisor, or HR, although it would be great if they did. This is just one of the reasons it may be up to you to take educational action. Sharing knowledge about food allergies and how to respond to them with your employees is not only important but potentially lifesaving.

As an employer, an awareness about food allergies and the legal responsibilities of your workplace becomes especially crucial for ensuring compliance and avoiding emergencies.

Host A Training Session

Offer a training session to share information about food allergies and emergency procedures with your employees.

How can they recognize an allergic reaction? What should they do to help a co-worker experiencing a reaction? Post signs communicating symptoms and procedures in eating areas like the staff kitchen or break room for future reference.

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Plan Accordingly

Company picnics, holiday parties, employee appreciation lunches – no party is complete without snacks! And let’s be real, depending on the allergy, it can be pretty difficult to find an alternative when the buffet contains hot dogs, pizza, or cake.

Before arranging the menu, ask your employees if they have any dietary or allergy needs.

Select food with the information gathered so that all team members are able to participate and feel appreciated. Plus, double checking on allergies prior may help you avoid medical emergencies on the day of the event.

Make Accommodations

Depending on type and severity, some allergies may interfere with daily work life more than others.

Examples of accommodations you could make for your employees with food allergies include: providing allergy-free dishes or cutlery, providing an allergy-free zone, providing flex time for medical appointments, or allowing employees to keep their emergency medication with them.

Communicate the accommodations to your team in a staff meeting or in the allergy training mentioned above. Make sure to add any allergy policies to your company handbook so they’re documented in writing!

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