Allergies in the Workplace

Categories: Seasonal Topics,Your Company's Health

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 as 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies and more are entering the workforce each year as the prevalence in food allergies among children has climbed 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 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the following eight foods or food families account for 90 percent of food allergy reactions:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish (e.g., bass, cod, flounder)
  4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
  5. Tree nuts (e.g. almonds, pecans, walnuts)
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. 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), a food 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. The FDA identifies the following as possible allergic reactions:

  • 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