Food allergies are on the rise — particularly among children — and that poses challenges to employers who are likely to see more employees struggling to manage their symptoms in the workplace
Approximately 15 million Americans have food allergies and their numbers are growing each year, according to Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE, a national advocacy group. Food allergies among children increased about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Employers need to make reasonable accommodations for allergy sufferers,” said Laurel Francoeur, an attorney and founder of the blog Allergy Law Project. “For example, keeping allergens out of the common areas. The main thing is to be cognizant of the issue. If they’re having employee dinners or parties they should make sure that these events are as inclusive as possible.”
Employers also need to be aware that a food allergy may be considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, she said.
“In 2008 the ADA was amended making it easier for food allergies to qualify for protection,” she said. “Allergies can limit major life activities, such as breathing, eating, working or going to school, as defined by the ADA.”
The U.S. Department of Labor recommends that employers offer training to educate employees on food allergies, post signs in office food areas on how to spot allergic reactions, provide designated utensils, cups and plates and allow employees to carry their medication at all times, among other suggestions.
The eight foods that account for most allergic reactions are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, according to FARE. Symptoms can range from hives and nausea to difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid the problematic food — something that can be tricky in a workplace setting, according to Scott Riccio, senior vice president of education and advocacy at the national group.
He recommends that employees let their supervisors know of their food allergy and advises employers to prepare for an influx of younger workers who are grappling with this condition.
“The general understanding in the allergy community was that kids would grow out of their food allergies, but that’s changed,” he said. “Kids are growing older with those allergies so that brings a new set of challenges. Those kids will be graduating in a few years and going on to jobs, so employers should be ready.”