Hosting an office potluck or weekly happy hour may seem like a simple way
to promote employee bonding, but a business may be unintentionally ostracizing
certain workers with these activities. As many as15 million Americans
suffer from food allergies and more are entering the workforce each year
as the prevalence in food allergies among children hasclimbed nearly 20
percent in the past 15 years. That employee who always turns down beers
after work, birthday cake or morning bagels and always brings their own
lunch may not be antisocial – he or she may suffer from food allergies.
According to theU.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the following
eight foods or food families account for 90 percent of food allergy reactions:
Milk Eggs Fish (e.g., bass, cod, flounder) Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab,
lobster, shrimp) Tree nuts (e.g. almonds, pecans, walnuts) Peanuts Wheat Soybeans
Unfortunately there is no cure for food allergies and sufferers must follow
strict avoidance in order to prevent relatively minor or mild symptoms,
as well as severe or life-threatening reactions.
What can an allergy sufferer do at work? Those who have food allergies
must act as their own advocates. Informing your boss or coworkers of any
food allergies, especially if you are prone to severe reactions, is the
best way to prevent cross-contamination and a resulting medical situation.
The office should also be made aware of where you store any medications,
such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl ) or epinephrine, in case of an emergency.
Allergy sufferers can also take an active role in planning office events
to ensure food and drinks are available that are “safe” for
all to enjoy. Keeping quiet, even if it is not in your personality to
call attention to yourself, does not help the morale of the office and
you may be placing your own life in danger.
What can an employer do for allergy sufferers?
It is important to accommodate food allergies as you would any other disability.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), afood allergy
qualifies as a physical impairment that affects “major life activities,”
such as breathing, eating and working.
When a new employee is hired, be proactive and ask about food allergies.
Someone with a severe peanut allergy may be uncomfortable around the office
candy bowl or someone with celiac disease might be hesitant to prepare
their food in the common lunch area, or even use the toaster. Once you
are aware of any allergies, make the effort to ensure the common work
area is safe for everyone. These employees should also be encouraged to
offer suggestions for office activities and feel comfortable enough to
speak up when they require an additional accommodation.
Employees should educate employers and coworkers on how to recognize and
address an emergency situation. TheFDA identifies the following as possible
Hives Flushed skin or a rash Tingling or itching sensation in the mouth
Face, tongue or lip swelling Vomiting and/or diarrhea Abdominal cramps
Coughing or wheezing Dizziness and/or lightheadedness Swelling of throat
or vocal cords Difficulty breathing Loss of consciousness
Employees with food allergies may need additional accommodations in order
to become an active participant in a positive office culture and it is
important to recognize this need, especially during important celebrations.
Written by James Lindberg, M.D., Hoag Executive Health Chief of Services