In recent years, childhood food allergy rates have skyrocketed. As these children grow up, some will outgrow their allergies. Others, however, will not.
As these children become adults, their food allergies are expected to pose workplace challenges. As children, many are protected by schools enforcing strict nut-free policies. But what happens when they leave this “safety zone” and enter the work world?
Currently, an estimated 1 percent of adults have peanut allergies. This number is expected to grow rapidly as they are joined by peanut-allergy sufferers who are now children. Yet many people don’t realize that adults can also suffer from food allergies, points out Christine Kelash, a middle school employee who is herself allergic to peanuts.
“There is always a concern for kids and food allergies, but not everyone is thinking of adults,” she explained.
On the other hand, Dr. Adela Taylor, a Mayo Clinic allergist, says she feels adults tend to be better equipped to deal with their food allergies than children.
“Adults can prepare their own food and read the labels on their own,” she explained. “They can have a conversation and they can ask the right questions” to be their own advocate.
Still, going to work with food allergies can be challenging. In 2010, a woman sued her employer, claiming that her coworkers had harassed her by intentionally eating peanuts near her desk, though they knew she had a severe allergy. She also claimed that her supervisor ate a Twix bar during a meeting with her, stating that if she survived the exposure it would prove that she was faking the allergy.
New Laws Protect Workers with Allergies
Attorney Tess O’Brien, with Boardman & Clark LLP in Wisconsin, says the law is just catching up to incidences like this.
“Adult allergy sufferers do have certain rights in the workplace, but the outcome in each case is very fact-specific, depending on the individual circumstances,” she explained.
In 2008, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was expanded to include conditions like food allergies. As a result of the change, employers have an obligation to accommodate, within reason, employees with food allergies.
What has been your experience in the workplace?