Adult Peanut Allergies Present Workplace Challenges

Peanut allergies in the workplace are a growing problem.

April 8, 2013, 4:52 PM

April 9, 2013— -- Schools across the country enforce strict nut-free policies to protect kids who suffer from peanut allergies, the third most common food allergy among American children, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

But what happens when peanut-allergic kids grow up and leave the sanctity of the school environment that so diligently guards against exposure to the allergen?

About 1 percent of adults suffer from peanut allergies ranging from mild to life-threatening. However, with twice as many children as adults diagnosed with peanut allergies according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and only 20 percent of them outgrowing peanut sensitivities, the numbers are growing.

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Christine Kelash, who discovered she was allergic to peanuts in her twenties, works at a Minneapolis middle school with peanut-aware policies in place but said ironically, even parents used to campaigning for their kid's allergies sometimes don't register the fact that adults can also suffer from food allergies.

"We have a wonderful parent organization who takes turns cooking for the teachers once a month. For a long time I would ask for a list of ingredients. It took a lot of emails, phone calls and in person talks to finally get the list. There is always a concern for kids and food allergies but not everyone is thinking of adults," she said.

Kelash said that she is fortunate her peanut allergy isn't life threatening though an exposure to the nut can cause her difficulty breathing. Working in a school helps cover her during the day. When she leaves the safety of the school environment she remains vigilant but tries not to make a major deal out of it.

Dr. Adela Taylor, an allergist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wis., said she felt most adults were better equipped to deal with their food allergies than children because they can advocate for themselves.

"Adults can prepare their own food and read the labels on their own," she said. "They can have a conversation and they can ask the right questions."

Besides, Taylor doesn't like the idea of nut-free zones for kids or adults. She said she felt they create a false sense of security. She also pointed to studies that show kids with food allergies are more likely to be bullied.

It appears that the same is sometimes true of adult allergy sufferers.

In 2010, a woman filed a lawsuit against her employer in an Arizona court, claiming that her coworkers harassed her by eating peanuts near her desk and chasing her and touching her with peanuts, despite knowing she had a severe allergy to the legume. In the complaint, the woman claimed her supervisor called her into a meeting and ate a Twix peanut bar in front of her, stating that if she lived after the exposure it would prove she was faking her allergy.

Tess O'Brien an attorney at Boardman & Clark LLP in Madison, Wis., said that the law is just catching up with workplace incidences like this because allergies have only recently been recognized as a true disability.

"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 said.

O'Brien said that beginning in 2008, the Americans With Disabilities Act expanded the meaning of the term disability to include "hidden disabilities" -- conditions that might not be immediately observable or active all of the time but that are capable of disrupting a "major life activity" such as breathing, eating, sitting, and normal cell growth. Food allergies are included in that expanded definition.

The amended laws also state that employers are no longer able to consider whether the effects of a condition can be mitigated through medication or whether other treatment can alleviate symptoms. These amendments make it harder for the employer to argue allergies are not disabling, even if flare ups only occur during exposure to certain foods.

O'Brien said this means employers have an obligation to accommodate employees who suffer from food allergies, but within reason. For example, it is much easier to protect someone from a peanut allergy who works in an office versus someone who works in food service.

The best way for adult peanut allergy sufferers to protect themselves in the workplace, O'Brien advised, is to write a letter to their employers, clearly describing their condition backed up by a note from a physician and then ask for a meeting with a supervisor to discuss the issues.

"It helps if you are clear and practical with your requests and ask nicely," she said. "Yours is just one request of many and reasonable accommodation is the bottom line."

Food allergies can pose a serious health risk to the 8 percent of the population that suffers from one or more of them, according to the American Academy of Asthma and Allergy Immunology.

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