Managing Food Allergies at Work
Whether you are newly diagnosed or have been managing your diet and allergies for years on your own, managing food allergies at work can present its own set of challenges. From business lunches to traveling for work, there is a lot to navigate, especially if you are new to the workforce or starting a new job.
When you are hired, speak to your supervisor about your food allergies and discuss any reasonable accommodations you may need in order to perform your job. They can advise you if your Human Resources Department requires documentation for your accommodations.
As you get to know your new office mates, team members, colleagues, clients, etc. you may choose to notify them about your food allergies if you are comfortable doing so. Here are a few suggestions for how you could enlist their support:
- Speak about your specific food allergies.
- Give information on the seriousness of food allergies. Notify them of where you keep your epinephrine, how to recognize the signs of a reaction, and what to do in case of emergency.
- Provide a few ways that they can help you prevent a reaction in the workplace. For example, consulting with you before planning lunches or functions with food involved, or if they are bringing food for the office, making sure the foods are packaged and labeled so you can review the ingredients. Thank them and offer yourself as a resource for any questions they may have about food allergies.
- Consider hanging a reminder sign that your office or cubicle is an allergen-free zone or a food allergy awareness poster. An interesting or humorous sign can be a great conversation-starter and help reinforce the importance of taking your allergies seriously.
If you have not already, familiarize yourself with your workplace rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the ADA Amendment Acts of 2008. This will help if you need to advocate more strenuously to have your needs met. Keep in mind that employers are obligated to keep employees' medical information confidential, except in the case that you require emergency treatment. If you choose to keep your food allergies private, laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) support your right to do so.
Despite your best efforts, accidental exposures can still happen. Be prepared in case of an emergency:
- Keep your epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times.
- Wear medical identification.
- Make sure that someone in your workplace knows what to do in case you have a severe reaction while at work.
Many adults with food allergies prefer to prepare and bring their own lunches to work. It is important to ensure your food is not contaminated or tampered with. Speak to your supervisor about the current norms set up for the kitchen space. Place your lunch in a sealed container, and label your food with your name and a “please do not touch” message. You might also ask for a designated space in a shared cupboard.
Other possible accommodations include permission to use a personal refrigerator or food storage in your private workspace.
Meetings and Trainings
Meetings and trainings often involve settings where people traditionally snack. They can also include leaders and attendees who are not involved in your day-to-day work and may not be aware of your needs and accommodations. Inform or remind the meeting facilitator or trainer of your needs each time you RSVP for a meeting or training and introduce yourself before the meeting/training begins. The trainer or facilitator may ask people to refrain from eating in the room during the training/meeting.
Having lunch with clients, coworkers, or your supervisor is a common way to build rapport with colleagues and conduct business; you shouldn’t miss out on these opportunities because of your food allergies. Provide the office manager or meeting coordinator with a list of restaurants that you have eaten at before and are comfortable ordering from. You can also offer to schedule the meeting or make restaurant reservations so you can plan ahead with the restaurant staff. If the meeting is spontaneous or previously planned, don’t be afraid to speak up and make a suggestion if the restaurant cannot accommodate you. If you would prefer to not eat out at all, consider suggesting coffee or happy hour drinks as an alternative setting for socializing.
Birthday parties, retirement parties, baby showers and other celebrations are regular occurrences in most offices. Speak with your supervisor about how the company can host events that will be fun and safe for you to attend. You can suggest that special occasions incorporate non-food related activities, such as games or contests (e.g. board games, trivia, word games, scavenger hunts, team-building activities) or recommend foods that are safe. For potluck parties, you can always bring a safe one-dish meal and serve yourself first to avoid contamination of your dish with serving utensils used in other dishes.
It is important to know that recreational workplace parties are not considered an essential job task, and so the law does not require that parties include safe food or other accommodations. As colleagues become friends, you will find that they want to include you and ask for more information to keep you safe and ensure you can enjoy the celebration, too.
Even when your colleagues are intent on including you and trying hard to keep you safe, mistakes may happen anyway. Appreciate the effort your colleagues have made, but always ask for what you need to stay safe.
Conferences and Other Work Travel
Worrying about your food allergies when you travel for work can take you away from fully participating in the event, but planning ahead can make a difference. Research current policies regarding serving snacks to determine which airline or other public transportation will work best for you. Traveling by car with coolers full of foods and other essentials is also an option. Find more information about airline travel, resorts, and traveling overseas on our traveling page.
Several lodging options allow you to bring your own food or prepare your own meals. You can contact traditional hotels for information about rooms with refrigerators and microwaves, or stay at extended-stay hotels where all rooms have kitchenettes or full kitchens. There are also vacation rentals by owner, where you rent a person’s home with all of its amenities.
Conferences and workshops are often catered far in advance and do not always take responsibility for feeding an attendee with food allergies. A good strategy can be to identify food allergy aware restaurants in the vicinity. If there are chain restaurants where you feel comfortable eating out while at home, see if the chain has a location near your hotel or the conference venue.
Certification Exams, Civil Service Exams, and Other Tests
When taking off-site examinations for professional development or advancement, always indicate that you have a disability and provide the necessary documentation to have a reasonable accommodation if you need to have a test environment free from certain foods, if you need your own food or medication present, or if you need any other modification to take the exam safely.
More information regarding managing food allergies at work can be found here:
Information for Employers >
Resources for Adults >
Avoiding Cross-Contact >
Tips for Traveling >