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Food Allergy

Accommodation and Compliance: Food Allergy

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About Food Allergy

A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system decides that a particular food is harmful and so creates specific antibodies to it. The next time the individual is exposed to that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals to protect the body. These chemicals trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system. Symptoms range from a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness to death. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic.

Although a person can be allergic to any food, there are eight foods that account for most of all food allergy reactions. These are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Currently, there are no medications that cure food allergies. Strict avoidance of the allergy-causing food is the only way to avoid a reaction.

Food Allergy and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA does not contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Accommodating Employees with Food Allergy

People with food allergies may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with food allergy will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.

General Accommodation Considerations

Implement a Policy Restricting Certain Foods from the Workplace

Note: While implementing policies restricting certain foods is not fail-safe, it may help to reduce exposure.

  • Post signs at entrances to the building and in hallways, restrooms, waiting rooms, classrooms, and cafeterias alerting people that certain foods are restricted due to a severe food allergy.
  • Send memos to employees mentioning that if a person has eaten the offending food to let others know so the proper precautions may be taken. Some allergic reactions have occurred when a person has contact with someone who has eaten an offending food.
  • Send occasional memos encouraging compliance with the policy.
  • Enforce the policy with consequences for violations.

Sample Policy Language

  • Memo to staff: "You may have noticed the signs up on the front door stating that this is a peanut and tree nut-free workplace. Please cooperate with this request because there are several of us on staff who are sensitive to peanuts and tree nuts to varying degrees. Our bodies have a hard time when we come into contact with these foods, and they may even cause anaphylaxis or death. If you have consumed peanuts, tree nuts, or other foods containing these products, please let [the receptionist, the manager, the HR person, etc.] know so we can take appropriate precautions."
  • Sign posted at business entrance: "This is a peanut and tree nut-free office. Please help us to accommodate our co-workers and clients who are allergic to these foods. Thank you for not bringing these items into the workplace."

Modify Workplace Policies

  • Allow employee to eat at his/her desk or in his/her office or allow extra time during lunch so the employee may go home to eat.
  • Permit flexible scheduling so the employee with a food allergy may work when less people are present in the workplace to decrease possible exposure.
  • Relocate employee’s workspace to reduce possibility of exposure to offending foods.

Traveling for Work

  • Research current airline policies regarding snacks served on the plane; some airlines do not serve peanut snacks.
  • Allow employees who travel for work to stay overnight in hotels with refrigerators in the rooms so they may bring their own food.

Recurrent Need for Medical Intervention 

  • Permit flexible scheduling.
  • Allow a self-paced workload with flexible hours.
  • Provide time off for medical appointments.
  • Consider work from home.
  • Allow additional unpaid leave if employee exhausts accrued time off.

Create an Emergency Plan of Action

  • Conduct a training session to educate employees on food allergies.
  • Discuss the proper steps to take in an emergency situation, e.g., how to call 911.
  • Discuss the signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, which may include a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
  • Allow an employee to keep medication with him/her at all times.
  • Note that an employee with a food allergy may wear a medical alert necklace or bracelet.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What limitations is the employee experiencing?
  2. How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  3. What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  4. What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  5. Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  6. Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?

Accommodation Ideas:

Situations and Solutions:

The following situations and solutions are real-life examples of accommodations that were made by JAN customers. Because accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, these examples may not be effective for every workplace but give you an idea about the types of accommodations that are possible.

Events Regarding Food Allergy