How to Handle Allergies in the Workplace

 

To some, allergies and intolerances are new, modern illnesses, which weren’t around a few years ago. In reality, it is probably just that society is increasingly aware of their health and have more access to medical diagnoses for allergies than ever before.

Allergies can be incredibly serious. Around ten people a year die in the UK from food allergies, and tragically there have been a number of recent high-profile deaths from allergic reactions.

I’m allergic to nuts, and I was diagnosed at the age of two. I like to think that I am pretty self-sufficient, and am aware of my limitations, early symptoms, and how to handle any reactions I may have. Although I handle it well, I do sometimes get impatient with people who vastly underestimate how dangerous allergies can be.

If I’m honest, the only truly stressful situations I’ve had with my allergies (aside from air travel, but that’s a whole other blog), have been in the workplace. Sharing fridges, work spaces, stationary, even pens and pencils, could all cause me to have an allergic reaction if the person who touched that item before has eaten peanuts.

So how can employers account for allergies in the workplace and make life easier for those with allergies? Is there anything specific you should be doing?

What are food allergies? How serious can they be?

It might be obvious, but not all allergies are the same. People can have allergies to different allergens and their reaction to such allergens varies from person to person – there’s no standard reaction. For example, I have a “nut” allergy and I am fatally allergic to even the smallest trace of peanuts, but I can ingest almonds without any severe reaction. Meanwhile, a friend of mine is also allergic to nuts and she can smell, touch or even ingest a small amount of peanuts without having a fatal reaction.

Allergies are also different from intolerances and dietary preferences. Allergies can cause a wide range of symptoms, and extreme reactions can cause breathing difficulties, unconsciousness, severe long-term medical effects or even death. In extreme cases, anaphylaxis can develop within minutes of contact and this can be with even the smallest amount of an allergen.

The Food Standards Agency lists 14 main allergens and eight of these cause 90% of allergic reactions (“the big eight”).

Are allergies a disability?

Honestly, there is mixed case law here. In one case, the Tribunal found that diet-controlled conditions (including allergies and diabetes) do not have a substantial effect on the ability of an individual to carry out day-to-day activities (one of the tests for a disability) as there are reasonable avoidance strategies available.

However, in another case in 2012, it was found that a chef with a severe nut allergy was disabled.

Allergies are not specifically excluded from the definition of disability, and in practice whether an allergy sufferer is classed as disabled will depend on the severity of their allergy and the ease by which it can be controlled (and how much of an effect such avoidance or control has on day-to-day activities). For example, if an individual has an allergy to atmospheric allergens and is unable to work in an office environment without suffering an allergic reaction, the allergy may be found to have a substantial adverse effect on day to day activities.

Why should employers care?

Aside from generally seeking to be a supportive environment in which an employee suffers minimal anxiety, an employer also has a number of obligations to bear in mind when dealing with allergic employees:

  • Under Health and Safety Law, employers must “so far as is reasonably practicable” protect the health and safety of employees by removing or reducing workplace risks.
  • If an allergy amounts to a disability, then the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for the allergy sufferer.
  • An employer has a common law duty of care to its employees.  Where the risk of injury is foreseeable the employer may be at risk of a personal injury claim if it does not take steps to prevent such injury.

 

What can employers do?

From experience, and from brainstorming what would make me feel most supported, the following are the tips we at Thrive have put together as to what an employer could/should do when they have employees which suffer from allergies:

  • Ask your employee! This seems to be the most obvious, as they know better than anyone what might make them feel more supported and what specific adjustments they may need/require. Some people with severe allergies might have action plans which they created with the help of specialists, which detail how to detail with a reaction. Those plans should be circulated to employer’s first aiders.
  • Do others need to know? It may be that other employees will need to know of the allergies so they can ensure they avoid the allergen (where appropriate) or so the first aiders are aware. However, this should be handled carefully; in a recent disability case, the Tribunal found that an employee suffered harassment due to her disability when she was introduced to all the first aiders as “the diabetic”.
  • An allergy policy? A policy may be a appropriate in regards to the most common allergens; for example, a ban on consuming peanuts at desks or storing shellfish products in any communal fridge. Such a ban has been demonstrated to be enforceable in an employment tribunal; in a 2014 case a dismissal of an employee for gross misconduct was fair, where that employee had continued to eat nuts at his desk despite clear instructions, posters and emails not to do so.
  • Keep the office clean especially where there is shared equipment or kitchen resources.
  • An allergy contract? This seems extreme, but it would make it clear to the employee what the employer was doing to accommodate the allergy and also make it clear that an employee still has an element of their own responsibility, such as carrying an Epipen and taking precautions. This might be especially helpful where an employee has only been recently diagnosed.
  • Personal space. Where an allergy is a certain severity, you might want to consider supplying an employee with their own fridge, their own storage and utensils for lunch and, where people hot-desk, permitting an employee to have their own desk.
  • Think social. Personally, I have been most isolated by my allergies in social functions. If an event has peanuts on their tables, I will sense it immediately and have to leave. In a cake sale, if someone can’t guarantee that their contribution doesn’t have nuts in, I can’t eat anything on the table (even if I baked something myself). Always bear in mind where your events are being held, and even at work lunches, ensure that they are allergy-compatible. Ask the allergy sufferer; some restaurants are much better than others.

 

If you have any questions on this, feel free to get in touch. My twitter is here and my linked in is here. I am very passionate about nut allergies and making workplaces more inclusive spaces, including for allergy sufferers, so I would happily talk about this at length!

 

Written by Alicia Collinson.

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