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Risk Management: Best Practices for Handling Food Allergies in the Workplace

While permitting employees to bring food into the workplace or offering it through a third party (such as from a food supplier in your cafe or from a caterer during a company outing) is a common practice, it’s also a risky one. Without proper precautions in place, all it takes is one, simple mistake for someone with a food allergy to accidentally ingest something that triggers a severe reaction, resulting in serious complications—or even death. What’s more, such a disaster carries a swarm of additional risks for your organisation, including costly liability disputes, legal violations and a tarnished reputation.

Food allergies are more common than you may realise. Indeed, more than 20 per cent of the UK population has one or more allergic disorder, and, from 1992-2012, there has been a 615 per cent increase in hospital admissions related to food allergies, according to Allergy UK. Don’t let your company be the cause of an employee suffering from an allergic reaction. Be sure to understand the basics of food allergies, as well as proper risk management practices.

What is a Food Allergy?

Put simply, a food allergy is present when the immune system has an unusual reaction to particular foods. Here are some common symptoms of food allergies, according to the NHS:

• An itching or tingling sensation in the mouth, throat or ears, sometimes causing difficulty swallowing
• An itchy, red rash (hives) or swelling of the face near the eyes, lips, tongue and roof of the mouth
• Shortness of breath and dizziness
• Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea

In severe cases, one may experience anaphylaxis. This reaction is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. It includes the following symptoms:

• Increased breathing difficulties, such as wheezing
• A rapid heartbeat or sudden drop in blood pressure, causing light-headedness or confusion
• Unconsciousness

Food allergies are caused by the body mistakenly treating proteins found in foods as a threat, thus releasing a number of chemicals that trigger the symptoms of an allergic reaction. The following list includes the top 14 allergens that trigger food allergies. Food businesses are required by law to mention whether their products contain these allergens:

• Celery
• Cereals containing gluten
• Crustaceans (crabs, lobster and prawns)
• Eggs
• Fish
• Lupin (flour and seed often found in breads and pastas)
• Milk products (butter, cheese and yoghurt)
• Molluscs (mussels, snails and squid)
• Mustard
• Nuts
• Peanuts
• Sesame seeds
• Soya (often found in bean curd)
• Sulphur dioxide (often used in dried fruit, meat products, fizzy drinks, wine and beer)

It’s important to note that food allergies and food intolerances aren’t the same. Rather, food intolerance occurs when one experiences diarrhoea, bloating or stomach cramps from consuming a substance. These symptoms are typically triggered by larger amounts of the food, usually occurring hours later and are never life-threatening.

Best Practices for Handling Food Allergies

Keep employees healthy and safe by implementing the following practices to manage food allergy risks:

• Upon hire, ask for documentation of employees’ food allergies and record any special accommodations they require.

• Obtain important medical information from any employees with severe food allergies. This information should include any required medications, emergency contacts and how to administer emergency treatment if necessary.

• Be sure that employees with food allergies have the resources necessary to have any required medication with them at all times. In addition, ensure that the medication is easily accessible.

• Conduct a training session to educate employees on best practices regarding food allergies. This includes knowing the symptoms of a reaction, being mindful of other’s allergies and always labelling shared foods with potential allergens.

• Place signs in common areas that explain how to spot symptoms of an allergic reaction, as well as proper emergency contact information. Consider designating one area of the employee kitchen for allergen-containing foods and preparation.

• If employees have severe allergies to a specific substance, do not permit that substance in common areas, such as the cafe. Instead, offer allergy-friendly alternatives to the substance (eg sunflower seed butter instead of peanut butter).

• Communicate the food allergies present in your workplace to all employees so they are aware if they bring in food to share. Remind employees of potential allergies in circumstances where food may be shared, such as meetings and outings.

• If you or other employees provide food to share, emphasise that allergy warnings must be present. Try to encourage employees to bring allergy-friendly foods to share when possible.

• Communicate with employees with food allergies to ensure they have proper alternatives or accommodations if food is provided or shared.

• Don’t let employees share cups, plates or utensils. Emphasise that employees must clean or dispose of their utensils immediately after their meal.

• When getting food from a supplier for common areas or for a company outing, be sure they are compliant with the Food Information for Consumers Regulation. This means they must have proper labels on pre-packaged foods if any of the top 14 allergens are ingredients. In addition, restaurants and caterers must share this information on their menus.

• Communicate all food allergies present in your workplace to food suppliers. Ask the supplier whether there is any risk of cross-contamination and whether the allergen information is accurate. For example, if the supplier recently changed a dish, it may now contain an allergen that it did not previously. Always ask if suppliers can offer allergy-friendly alternatives.

• When the food supplier arrives, speak to an employee or their manager. Confirm your previous conversation with the business and ensure the food choices are still suitable.

• When ordering takeaway for employees, check that allergen information is available and confirm which choices are allergen-free. Ensure the supplier labels individual meals so you are sure that certain meals are safe for employees with allergies.

• Be sure your organisation is compliant with the Equality Act 2010. Employees with severe (life-threatening) food allergies may qualify as someone with a disability. With this in mind, failing to accommodate those with food allergies could be seen as disability discrimination.

For more guidance, contact ABL Group’s risk management professionals and ensure your business and your staff are protected.

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