How should employers deal with allergies in the workplace?

How should employers deal with allergies in the workplace?

When Vanessa Feltz made controversial comments about coeliac disease on This Morning, it soon became one of the top five most complained-about TV moments of 2023.

The furious response revealed the public’s strength of feeling around the disease, which affects 1 in 100 people in the UK. And, with the prevalence of food-related allergies also on the rise, it is now increasingly likely that employers will encounter staff who suffer from allergies or autoimmune conditions like coeliac disease. Some of those, such as peanut allergies, can be potentially life-threatening.

Nine out of ten food allergies are caused by “The Big Eight” – eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Some severe cases can be triggered by touch, or even just tiny particles circulating in the air – we’ve all been on a plane where we’ve been asked not to eat any nut products because a severely allergic person is on board.

While awareness is improving, employers are often unsure how to support employees living with these conditions.

A persistent or life-threatening allergy or autoimmune condition may be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, depending on the impact the condition has on a person’s daily life. If it’s considered severe enough to affect their day-to-day activities, the employee will be protected in law against discrimination, as a disabled person. Their employer will also be obliged to make reasonable adjustments to support them at work.

It’s also worth remembering that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to reduce the risk of workplace injuries ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’ – and that applies to everyone, not just people with disabilities.

Proactive employers will want to support employees with allergies or food-related conditions regardless of the legal position. It’s estimated that 1-2% of the adult UK population are affected, so it’s in an employer’s best interest to create a safe working environment for them.

In fact, many of the steps involved in creating an allergy-friendly workplace are ones that would benefit everyone, in terms of reducing the spread of viruses and germs – such as regular deep-cleaning and making sure your indoor spaces are properly ventilated.

To avoid cross-contamination, separate areas for safe food storage should be created for affected staff to keep their meals and snacks, along with their own crockery and cutlery.  Similarly, hot desking is unlikely to be a wise option for an employee with a serious allergy.

It’s not all about practical solutions – empathy can be required too. People with food-related conditions can often feel like their dietary requirements are a nuisance, so taking care not to exacerbate that feeling is vital. If you are holding a work event, such as a Christmas party or entertaining a client, ensure you pick a restaurant where everyone can safely eat. And if you’re bringing in a caterer, make sure the dietary needs of all your staff are catered for adequately – not just as an afterthought.

Prevention is always better than cure, but if you have a severely allergic employee, it’s essential your team knows what to do in case of an emergency. Charities such as Anaphylaxis UK can provide workplace training to ensure staff recognise the signs of a severe allergic reaction in a colleague, and have the confidence to safely manage it.  Formal first aiders should always know the location of EpiPens and be trained in how to use them.

Every person with an allergy or food-related condition is different, so – forgive me if this sounds obvious – it’s a good idea to ask them what you can do to make them feel safer at work. Having an employer that’s proactively supportive of how they manage their condition is likely to significantly reduce their anxiety, improve wellbeing and ultimately support an inclusive culture.

If you’d benefit from advice on dealing with this, or any employment law matter, contact Jemma Forrest.

A version of this article was featured in Business Insider.

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