Generally speaking, yes. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), food allergies are usually considered to be workplace disabilities.
The ADA defines a disability as any:
“…physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”Introduction to the ADA
Since food allergies can affect major life activities such as eating and breathing, they generally fall under the ADA’s definition of a disability.
Food Allergies in the Workplace: Why Reasonable Accommodations are Important
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to employees who meet the definition of an “individual with a disability.”
These reasonable accommodations generally refer to minor modifications or adjustments to established rules and practices that inhibit the disabled individual’s ability to work.
For example, if an individual meets the ADA’s definition of “disabled” because of a leg injury, and their job normally requires standing for long periods of time (such as a cashier), that individual may be able to ask for a stool or chair to rest on.
In this situation, the request for the stool would be “reasonable” because it would be a minor change to an established policy that allows the disabled individual to enjoy an equal employment opportunity to other, non-disabled employees.
In a similar fashion, requests that would seriously impact the employer’s business are generally not covered by the ADA, since such requests would be seen as “unreasonable.”
For example, while a chair or stool could be seen as reasonable in the above situation, a request for paid, hour-long resting breaks in the middle of a shift may be “unreasonable” depending on the circumstances of the case.
In this context, accommodations for food allergies in the workplace must be “reasonable” in nature, and must not impact the employer’s business in a significantly negative way.
While we’ll outline a few common solutions below, you should remember that “reasonable accommodations” are often case-specific.
For this reason, they are usually something you should talk over with your human resources department or, if necessary, and attorney.
Reasonable Accommodations: What to Do With Food in the Workplace
Generally speaking, if your allergies are negatively impacting your right to equal employment, you should bring the issue to your employer’s attention.
Then, you should request a reasonable accommodation that could fix the problem.
When it comes to food allergies, these accommodations generally center on changes to shared kitchen spaces.
However, they may also apply to other locations in your workspace depending on the issue at hand and the severity of your allergy.
Luckily, when compared to most other workplace accommodations, food allergy accommodations are often relatively simple to implement.
Workplace Training Sessions
When it comes to reasonable accommodations, diplomacy is often the best policy.
As one common reasonable accommodation, employers can conduct training sessions to educate employees about the risks of food allergies in the workplace.
Such training sessions will often address informal accommodations in meetings, training spaces, workspaces, eating spaces, and other locations.
If your workplace has a kitchen area, for example, your employer could post signs with information about anaphylaxis, and then perform a quick training session where they discuss how other employees can avoiding inciting your allergies.
For instance, your workplace could provide you with designated cups, plates, or food storage locations to avoid cross-contamination.
Similarly, they could ban uncommon foods from the office, or provide you with a separate space where you don’t have to come in contact with the substance.
Basically, the “point” of this accommodation is to normalize your allergy by educating your peers on the risks, while also establishing precautions to ensure your safety.
In addition to the general education and training noted above, it may also be wise to ask for specific workplace allowances that can help you reduce your risk of exposure to the allergen.
For example, you could ask your employer to change an existing policy on medication so that you can keep an EpiPen at your desk.
Similarly, you could ask to work from home on days when you know certain allergens will be in the office, such as during a holiday party.
As we mentioned above, you can ask for any reasonable accommodation that would provide you with equal employment opportunities to other, non-disabled workers.
In this way, it’s often wise to speak with your employer about the various allowances available for minimizing your allergies in the workplace.
The Most Important Point: Action
Finally, you should never be afraid of asking your employer for additional accommodations or training should the situation not improve.
If other employees aren’t following the provisions that have been made for you, such as if they’re stealing your food or failing to follow the new policies, you can ask your employer to take action.
If your allergies are serious enough to warrant additional caution, make sure to communicate with your employer on a regular basis about the enforcement of your accommodations to ensure your own safety.
Most importantly, always prioritize your own safety over the comfort of your employer or peers.
Food allergies are a serious medical issue that can have profoundly negative impacts on your health and well-being if ignored.
For this reason, it’s important for individuals with food allergies to take proactive measures to protect their own interests.
To repeat, yes, food allergies are usually a workplace disability under the ADA and related laws.
For this reason, individuals with food allergies can request reasonable accommodations from their employer to help ensure their safety.
The point of these accommodations is to make it so the individual with the food allergy can enjoy the same employment opportunities as non-allergic individuals.
If you believe that you meet these criteria, it’s usually a good idea to work out a plan with your employer or their human resources department.
If your employer refuses to fix the situation, or if they fail in implementing a fix that adequately protects your safety, it may also be wise to chat with an attorney.