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Oct 2016

Food allergies: How can employers assist affected workers.


pan with food allergy written in biscuits

Food allergies effect a number of workers across the nation. Severe food allergies are a significant health risk, and can result in severe reactions that can be fatal. Employees with food allergies need to be careful when in a community-eating area. So how prevalent are food allergies? and what about the employer? How much responsibility does the employer need to take in preventing allergic reactions in employees with known food allergies?

Prevalence of food allergies in the US

Food allergies effect both children and adults across the United States. According to FARE (Food Allergy and Research Education), 9 million adults and 6 million children struggle with food allergies. For adults, this is around 4% of the entire adult population in the nation. Food allergies also seem to effect boys more often than girls.

The most common food allergies are intolerances for milk, egg, wheat, and soy. These allergies often are resolved prior to adulthood, and children seem to ‘grow’ out of them. However, allergies to other foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are usually a life-long issue. Consequently, these are the foods that employers need to be aware of.

Symptoms and severity of allergic reactions

Symptoms of allergic reactions can take a variety of forms. Symptoms of less severe reactions include things such as hives, itchiness, and rashes. Swelling of the tongue, feet, and lips can also occur. More severe reactions may cause painful cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. Some individuals even experience shortness of breath, chest tightness, and fainting.

The most severe reactions can result in anaphylactic shock. When the immune system is completely overwhelmed with an allergen then the entire body can fall into shock. Anaphylactic shock is life threating, and needs to be treated immediately.

What is the Employer’s responsibility?

Employers do have responsibility when it comes to accommodating employees with a food allergy. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) set regulations for the proper accommodations disabled individuals are afforded in schools, work environments, and other public places. Food allergies, under federal law, are considered to be a disability.

Employers are responsible for providing accommodations for employees. However, employees must make it known that they have a food allergy. Once an employee has specified their allergy, then employers must assume responsibility in making the workplace accommodating for that employee. The problem is; what accommodations are required and expected?

The best way for employers to decide on appropriate accommodations is to sit down with the employee and discuss their needs. Obviously, these accommodations should be within reason. It is not required that employers spend excessive amounts of money. Rather, the goal should be to provide a workplace where an employee can effectively carry out their work without fear of encountering their known allergen. Employers may wish to prohibit certain foods (such as peanuts) in the lunch room. Or require that counter surfaces be wiped after every use. Otherwise, working out specific alternatives with an employee to accommodate their needs should be sufficient.

The US Department of Labor offers the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) which employers can use to get ideas and insight on accommodating food allergies and other disabilities in the workplace. Using resources like JAN can go a long way in easing the stress of figuring out ways to make the workplace safe for those with food allergies.

Ultimately, the workplace should be a safe environment for all present there. If you have a food allergy, or have an employee with a food allergy, then make sure accommodations are made to maintain workplace safety. Yes, much of the responsibility rests on the individual with the disability. However, employers should actively seek ways to help, engage, and improve workplace safety for their workforce. Being aware of food allergies and making the necessary changes is another step towards a workplace rooted in safety culture.

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