Employers should protect workers with food allergies

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Posted by Legal Team On April 12, 2017

Allergic reactions to food can happen quickly and be life threatening.  An estimated 15 million people in America suffer from some sort of food allergy. Frighteningly, this number is increasing each day. 

A study conducted by the CDC found that between 1997 and 2011, food allergies in children increased by nearly 50 percent.  As time progresses, these children are entering the workforce. Employers need to be aware of the seriousness of food allergies. More importantly, employees should be aware of their legal rights when it comes to protecting their health.

Employers Need To Explore Ways To Accommodate The Employee

An article in KY Forward points out that Americans with food allergies are now legally protected as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This change occurred in 2008 with the passing of the ADA Amendments Act.  In the change, the term “disability” was redefined to broaden its scope to include those with food allergies. 

So what exactly does this change mean?  When an employee discloses to his or her employer that he or she has a disability like a food allergy, the employer must then enter into an “interactive process” alongside the employee. 

The purpose of this process is to discuss a reasonable way the employee can still carry out day-to-day duties at work.  Under the ADA, employees with food allergies are protected from an employer terminating or ignoring them because of their health problem. 

Reasonable Accommodations Can Come In Many Forms

Usually if the accommodation is difficult to put in place or is costly, it is not required by the employer.  But there are some easy ways an employer can better accommodate an employee suffering from a food allergy.  Here are a few:

  • Employers can prohibit certain foods that are allergens, or simply restrict foods to a certain area. 
  • An employer can allow an employee with food allergies to have lunch at his or her desk to ensure the employee is not near problematic foods. 
  • An employer can be flexible and allow the employee to go home for lunch. 

With this being said, it is important for the employer to ensure that their accommodations are not restricting or isolating the employee.  The employee must never be prevented from gaining access to certain areas of the building.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

As an employee, it is important to educate managers, supervisors and fellow employees about what foods could be an allergen and what to do in case you ever have a medical emergency. Consider reminding fellow employees during potluck lunches, catered lunches or during birthday celebrations that food allergies are an issue.

You might also want to have designated utensils, plates and cups for your own use. This can help prevent cross-contamination with potentially dangerous foods. Your employer also needs to allow you to keep medicine with you, and to allow you to wear a medical ID indicating your allergies.

What If You’ve Already Been Harmed?

If you suffered a serious allergic reaction due to workplace conditions that your employer knew about and refused to correct, it’s wise to talk with an employee rights attorney to make sure your interests are protected.