Category Archives: Allergies in the Workplace

Open Sesame: Why I Decided to Tell my Employer About my Food Allergy

It started with a bagel; a sesame bagel someone around me was eating at a brunch. I’ve always had an intolerance to sesame seeds, nothing to fret about as it had remained an intolerance my entire allergy life so I never worried too much about it, considering I had bigger, more serious allergies. I wasn’t afraid or concerned around them as long as I wasn’t ingesting them. That was until a bagel at a brunch spot in Ottawa ruined that idea. A little back-story: A year ago I was living in Kingston, Ontario during the week and Ottawa, Ontario on weekends. My Sundays usually consisted of brunch then hitting the 401 for a two-hour drive. I travelled back and forth so often I spent a lot of time alone in my car with my thoughts and a good audiobook. On this one specific drive in late May, I started to feel sick and uncomfortable, but I passed off the feeling as tiredness and anxiety about driving back to Kingston. I figured my eyes were red from over focusing and the hives were caused by stress. I pushed aside any seed of thought about a reaction… but then it happened again.  It was a little more serious; my breathing was heavy and my hives were unmistakable. Those little seeds of doubt started to bloom into full-blown panic. Fast forward a few weeks later my allergist confirmed that my intolerance had upgraded to a full-blown allergy.

Following this diagnosis, I really needed to take stock of the one place where I was around food the most: my workplace. I was suddenly very aware of my work surroundings and where my new allergen may lurk; the old toaster in our office with crumbs in the bottom, knifes in the drawer were questionable as well as specs on the communal tables. The lunchroom suddenly became an area of anxiety and insecurity.

When I first mentioned my new allergy to my co-workers, I received a bit of a negative response about this “weird” allergy. This made me hesitant to talk to them about creating a safe space for me to eat in. I then internalized my allergies, trying to brush them off as not serious or a big deal even though they were causing my anxiety to go through the roof. I felt like I was back in grade school, surrounded by kids who didn’t understand my allergies or care because they wanted to be able to eat whatever they want. I began to eat at my desk or left completely to eat outside the office.  I knew something had to be done.

I started with a frank and honest discussion with my bosses about the severity of my new allergy. I expressed my worries, concerns and fears about the uncertainty surrounding the situation. I got an allergy alert plan outlining: Identifying a reaction, steps to take, where my auto-injector is, and what my allergens are. I put it up in a central spot to alert others to the seriousness of my food allergies. These actions may seem easy but it proved difficult for me personally; I hate talking about myself, making inconveniences for anyone or putting a spotlight on me at all. It makes me feel uncomfortable and awkward but those of us who have food allergies need to push those stage-fright feelings aside and make sure we’re heard.

It may be difficult to tell someone in an authority position about your food allergies. Even worse, it’s always challenging to explain allergies to someone who doesn’t get it or hasn’t been around it before. It’s easy to close off, shrink back and avoid the situation, or lash out and get angry. Both of which put you in a dangerous position, leaving everyone unsatisfied. Don’t let ignorance or misjudgment deter you from keeping yourself safe or speaking up. Telling your employer about your food allergies can keep you safe and create a friendly and informed workplace. Having a plan and being prepared for anything is the best possible way to tackle any situation. Most problems start with one tiny seed, and if we ignore them they can grow into a full-blown complication. We can’t ignore our intuition, or push aside out feelings, we have to be strategic and confident and find new and creative solutions whether it be allergy related, work related, or both.

-Arianne K.

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Having a Happy and Safe Holiday with Food Allergies

The holidays are upon us once again! With the holiday season there are inevitably lots of gatherings, parties and celebrations. Whether it is family get togethers or work parties, food certainly plays a big role this season and is a time to be on high alert for those of us with allergies! Here are my top 5 tips to having a happy and safe holiday season with allergies.Full Homemade Thanksgiving Dinner

  1. Remind your family members about your allergies

The holidays tend to be the time of year where family members who you may not have seen for a while will be getting together to celebrate. For those more distant relatives it can be hard for them to remember that you have an allergy – especially if you are allergic to more than one thing. Instead of being frustrated and dealing with an awkward situation where you can’t eat items at your family gathering, don’t be shy to gently remind your family about your allergies. It may feel slightly uncomfortable but people often feel bad when they realize they have brought something you are allergic to so it’s better to let them know in advance!

  1. Watch out for those baked goods

As common allergens are frequently found in baked goods, it is important to be extra careful around these items. The holiday season usually means lots and lots of baked goods – cookies, Christmas pudding, pies – you name it, somebody is baking it! I have found that people often bring things into work or there are trays of baked goods at parties. It is always important to ask about ingredients and watch for cross contamination. You will generally be safest if you avoid the baked goods unless you can guarantee that they are safe!

  1. Prepare in advance for work parties

There are usually lots of fun parties to attend during this time of year. If you have an invite to a work party do your research! Look into where it is being held and if there is food being served. As it can be hard to find out all the details you are doing yourself a favour if you prepare ahead of time by eating before you go. Some parties may just have appetizers and drinks so you could be starving anyways if you haven’t had a good dinner before attending!

  1. Make your own treats

With the limitations most people with allergies have when it comes to baked treats and goodies it can be quite disheartening having no fun holiday baked goods to eat. Get creative in the kitchen and make things yourselves! You can even have some friends over and have a holiday baking party. That way your kitchen is stocked for the season and you can even bring your own treats with you to gatherings and parties so you can ensure your sweet tooth is satisfied and you don’t miss out!

Christmas lights on dark blue background. Decorative garland

  1. Don’t get stressed by the little stuff

With so many get togethers over the holidays, this can sometimes be an added stress for those with food allergies. Don’t let it get to you if you miss out on some desserts or can’t eat everything at your work party. Remember this is a time of year to celebrate and enjoy those you are with – not what ends up in your belly! I always try to put a positive spin on my restrictions by saying that I won’t put on as many pounds this time of year or be the one on New Year’s Day hitting the gym. Of course, I somehow always manage to find a few allergy-safe treats before the holidays are over!

Hope these tips help you all have a very happy holiday season!

– Lindsay S.

Top Ten Tips Series: How to “Rock” Your Food Allergies

As someone who has grown up since the age of nine avoiding peanuts and tree nuts, I like to think I “Rock” at managing my food allergies. If you aren’t as confident, or if you want to become even more confident, then here are my top ten tips on how to completely “Rock” your food allergies:

  1. Wear your MedicAlert® or medical identification in case of emergency. For those like me who were really self-conscious about wearing these, there are now tons of really awesome new pieces of identification right down to military-style dog tags! Pick the one most stylish for you, then rep it and tell everyone about your food allergy.Man jump through the gap. Element of design.
  2. Show and tell. Show off your auto-injector and teach others how to use it.
  3. Be a master chef. Create a special food recipe that is allergy safe and share it with your friends to show that you too can eat delicious foods.
  4. Don’t keep your food allergies or an allergic reaction a secret. Be proactive and tell friends what to expect before a reaction occurs. Tell them what steps they should take in an emergency.
  5. Lead the way, spread the word! This can be done so many ways. You could write a song, create a sketch comedy routine, paint your thoughts, write a blog, write to a politician, or create a twitter account with tips on staying safe with food allergies. There’s an endless chain of possibilities here to really pave the way for every other food allergic person!
  6. Be suave. If dating, be flirty with potential dates by incorporating your food allergy into texts. One line that has proven to open the lines of communication for me time and time again is: “Hey, please try not to eat any peanuts or tree nuts from now until I see you tomorrow ;)” The wink face may seem corny but it is very helpful in keeping the message light, but serious, by implying that I may go in for a kiss and want to be as safe as possible. Her follow-up will likely involve some opportunity for me to educate her on the potential risks of kissing if my allergens are present.
  7. Educate co-workers. There are a lot of people who have never been exposed to food allergies and have no knowledge of the potential consequences allergen exposure can have on someone at-risk for anaphylaxis. For this reason, I think it’s important to teach the people you work with (and see every day) about food allergies. Teach them about signs and symptoms, how to use an auto-injector, where they can find yours, steps to take in case of an emergency, and how to avoid cross-contamination. If you want more advice on how to do this, check out Jason’s take on how to educate co-workers: https://adultswithallergies.com/2016/04/01/explaining-my-food-allergies-series-to-a-co-worker/
  8. Learn from past mistakes. I’m sure we have all had a close-call (or two…or many) in our lives. I like to think that mistakes are made so that we can learn from them. I try not to dwell on them. I figure out where I went wrong and how I can improve to ensure I remain safe in the future.
  9. Remain confident when facing adversity. No one knows you better than yourself so when you face a difficult food allergy scenario, remain confident, and stick to your safety game plan! You are the master of your food allergies.
  10. Continue to be AWESOME! Use my tips or find your own way to rock your food allergies! Just remember, to keep being awesome.

Awesome comic bubble retro text. Pop art style

Do you have any other tips that you think would benefit other adults with allergies? Feel free to post in the comments below and start a discussion.

Dylan B.

Don’t Eat the Butter Chicken: What I Learned from my Food Allergy Close Call

I was invited to watch a soccer game in a box at a local stadium.

It was a chance to network for a new job and I was feeling a little bit out of my element.

So I said yes to the butter chicken.

toned image of indian chicken curry with basmati rice

The idea of a meal prepared by an Executive Chef in a kitchen sounded safe to me.

I spoke with the Chef, read their ingredients list, and went over all the possible questions for cross contamination. Did you use a clean cutting board? Is there a designated area where you prepare the ingredients? The staff assured me that this was the standard dish they serve to food allergic guests.

I dabbed the sauce on my tongue with my finger before dipping my spoon into the dish (the classic eating-out test for me).

But seconds after the sauce touched my tongue I was administering my Epi-Pen® and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

The most terrifying part of the event was the ambulance ride.

The driver was stopped at a traffic light only a block away from the stadium when suddenly there was pounding on the side of the ambulance truck.

A dad was driving his teenage son to the hospital because he was going into anaphylactic shock. He wasn’t carrying his medication on him.

And he had also eaten the butter chicken.

Here’s what I learned from this close call:

  1. Auto-injectors like my Epi-Pen® are a painless tool that will save your life. This was the first time I administered my Epi-Pen® on myself. Before this, I was terrified. I would typically rush myself to the hospital after consuming lots of Benadryl®. Was it denial of being in anaphylactic shock? Fear of doing it wrong? I’m not sure. That moment made me realize how important administering an auto-injector is during a crisis.
  1. Don’t feel pressure to eat out just to feel included. In my professional life, I often have moments where I feel like I fit in and my food allergies don’t exist. I feel like we’re all equals, part of a team, working together to create something awesome. If your friends or colleagues respect and understand your food allergies, compromises can be made to tailor to your needs.
  1. Always have a buddy who knows where your medication is located, at any age. My wonderful friend rushed to my purse seconds after the spoon hit my tongue. She gave me my Epi-Pen® within one minute of the reaction starting. She knew I had severe food allergies and remained calm in the situation. She stayed with me in the hospital and reached out to my emergency contacts.Sketch illustration of two hands holding each other strongly
  2. If you trust a kitchen with preparing your food, request to have something made fresh for you with simple ingredients. Don’t go for the prepared butter chicken from the chef who isn’t working the shift anymore. If the kitchen passes your trust test, choose uncomplicated, simple food. A grilled chicken breast without sauce and one side veggie is much easier than a complex soup with a long list of possible contaminants.
  1. Despite your due diligence, mistakes can happen. The teen who also had a reaction to butter chicken was a season pass holder for the stadium. He always ate the butter chicken at games. But that day the chef used one different ingredient. We can’t predict these things and it’s part of what we live with every day.
  1. Always go to the hospital. I received a second dose of epinephrine when I arrived at the hospital. About two hours after arriving, while in the waiting room, I went into anaphylactic shock again. Always seek physician care even if you have used your Epi-Pen®.

Cashew paste. The morning chef used cashew paste and didn’t follow the kitchen’s recipe.

That night I learned a valuable lesson. We all know that eating brings people together, and in that stressful situation, I wanted to feel included. But it’s never worth the risk.

After that night, I promised myself to never again concede to the pressure to eat out in public.

Do you have any lessons from a close call to add?

– Catherine B.

Explaining My Food Allergies Series: To a Co-worker

Business People Meeting Conference Brainstorming Concept
Having open lines of communication with co-workers about your food allergy is important

I experienced my first anaphylactic reaction when I was an infant. By the time I entered the workforce I had more than two decades of experience taking care of my own safety. I was an expert, an anaphylaxis ninja, masterfully controlling my environment to ensure my safety.

This idea was shattered into tiny pieces one day when the office prankster saw me hard at work and used the back of my head as target practice. His projectile of choice was a handful of peanuts; the allergen I had reacted to.

In his defence he didn’t know his prank was dangerous. But for me this situation was a wake-up call; I was confronted with the fact that my track record hadn’t made me an expert, it made me complacent. I thought that it would have been awkward to inform my coworkers about my risk of anaphylaxis, but now I knew it was far more awkward to do so while picking a peanut out of my hair.

I realized that I needed to be proactive and explain anaphylaxis to my coworkers. Here are a few of my strategies for sharing food allergy information with coworkers:

  1. Go all the way to the top. If your company has a good Human Resources department go there, otherwise go to the highest manager you have access to. In my case, I went straight to the company president. I shared that I am at-risk for anaphylactic reactions and I educated him on what that meant. In all honesty I felt embarrassed, but the response to this was amazing. By the end of the day all the peanuts had been removed from the building and the cleaning staff were given special instructions to ensure every surface was cleaned. Most important of all was that now the management team knew what to do if anything happened.
  2. Next, go close to home. My company had 120 employees in two locations. I couldn’t tell everyone at once so I started within my department. This created a zone of safety with the cubicles nearest my own receiving the first education. Since these coworkers were actually eating food near my desk, they were critical to my safety. On top of this, they ended up being great advocates and helped me spread the word throughout the company.
  3. Be open to curiosity. Whenever someone had a question I went out of my way to educate them. I adopted the attitude that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Things that I took for granted were unknown to my coworkers so answering questions was a great way to make sure that the people around me were as anaphylaxis conscious as possible. For example, I got questions about smelling peanuts, symptoms I experienced in the past, how fast a reaction is, what they could do if I had a reaction and many others. These were great opportunities to educate people.
  4. Be direct and clear. It’s important to remember that anaphylaxis is serious business. I didn’t dwell on the darker side of food allergies but I did address them head on. After I explained what a reaction might look like I was honest, people have died from this, not often but it has happened. By approaching the subject directly I was able to get my message across and avoid other situations like the prankster episode. It turns out that my coworkers appreciated this method as it helped them understand the situation clearly.
  5. Teach people how to react to an allergic reaction. I always carry an auto-injector but during a previous reaction I learned that it can be hard to operate under pressure. When my hands were shaking I had my brother administer the injection for me. With that experience in mind I taught my coworkers how to use my auto-injector. I managed to get one of the trainers that has the needle removed and we practiced several times. Then we talked about the other steps such as calling an ambulance. Overall, it helped empower the people around me to feel like they could help if something went wrong.
  6. Continue to be proactive. My work was never over. This went for both my real work and my food allergy-awareness work. Food Allergies are a very important part of my life but just a fleeting thought for most people. Some people I had been working with for years would still forget about my food allergy from time to time. It’s your responsibility to stay safe so be proactive and continuously educate.

As people who are at-risk for anaphylactic reactions, we get used to talking to our friends, restaurant staff, and our families. But in many cases you spend more time with your coworkers than anyone else. It’s important to take matters into your own hands and talk to your coworkers about the risks associated with severe allergic reactions.

What about you? What strategies do you use to talk to your coworkers?

– Jason B.

Attending Conferences with a Food Allergy

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.
There are ways to attend conferences safely with food allergies

While completing my master’s degree at Western University, I had the privilege of presenting my research at a number of conferences. Through my work with Food Allergy Canada, I have also attended a few conferences, both as a general attendee and as a moderator/facilitator. Living with a peanut/tree nut allergy, I have to prepare for conferences with a little more planning than the classic presentation prep. I find it useful to view the conference agenda ahead of time. This allows me to figure out when food can realistically be consumed.

In most cases, the conference admission will include some sort of lunch or, if you’re lucky, a full dinner. If this is the case, I make a point of contacting the conference organizer to speak about my food allergy and discuss what a safe meal entails. I think that trying to explain the severity of my food allergy through emails is risky because emails can get lost in the ‘spam’ folder, read but not processed, or they can simply be overlooked. For this reason, I think a phone call is always the best option for meal preparations. Here’s a couple examples of recent conferences I attended and what I did:

I recently attended a food allergy conference in Washington, DC, where I was surrounded by teens and parents living with food allergies. There was no food permitted in any of the meeting or conference rooms. This kept the conference very safe for the countless people with food allergies present. In fact, the only food I saw at the venue was sample packs of snacks from a vendor who made a point of asking what your food allergy was before offering any samples. The lunch time slot was extended to just over an hour to allow attendees to leave the venue, find allergen-safe food, and journey back to the venue in time for the afternoon sessions. This is an example of a well-planned, allergy-friendly conference.

Another conference I attended was less allergy-friendly but still very accommodating. It was a conference held in Niagara Falls for the Canadian Association on Gerontology. With over 1000 people in attendance, I knew I would need to plan my meals extra carefully. I contacted the conference organizer and had a special meal made for each of my lunches, which was great! However, when I picked up my lunch, I quickly realized that all of my friends had chocolate bars with nuts in them AND little packs of trail mix! When I realized this, I had to be extra diligent with my hand washing and careful not to eat anything that may have come in contact with the tables, or really anything at the conference. This is an example of a well-planned, but less allergy-friendly conference.

In most cases, it is likely unrealistic to request a complete ban of your allergen at a conference. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask. If you ask and the organizer says no, you’re in no worst condition. At least you tried! In any case, remember to plan your meals ahead of time. If the organizers cannot accommodate your allergy, simply make them aware of your allergy and pack food that you know is safe. Then wash your hands before eating. Lastly, always bring your auto-injector with you to the conference and ensure it is with you at all times. This is important in the case of an emergency.

After thoroughly preparing for all food possibilities at the conference, remember to prepare your slides, dress sharp, and have some fun! Happy conferencing everyone!

Dylan B. 

Allergies and Outings with Colleagues

Jumping groupCarving-out a niche in the working world is all about building relationships with your colleagues. Having had brief experience in a corporate setting, I can attest to this. A major problem that I encounter is that most of these networking and social opportunities happen over lunch or dinner. This often puts me in a bind. I want to participate in these events, but how can I do so safely?

First of all, you should always plan ahead. A few weeks ago, I wrote an entry regarding buffets and safe dining–this was my first rule. If a group of colleagues arrange to have a dinner after work, use your lunch break to call the establishment in advance. Ask to speak to the general manager and ask whether or not they can guarantee an allergen-free environment. Ask about the nature of the cuisine they prepare and whether or not any of their products contain your specific allergen. Reiterate that you have a life-threatening allergy that is very serious and that the allergy can be triggered by cross-contamination.

Secondly, talk to the restaurant staff in person. If the phone conversation went well, and you feel safe enough to eat at the restaurant, speak to the restaurant staff upon your arrival. Ask to speak to the general manager again, to follow-up on your inquiries, and try to speak to the chef who will be in charge of preparing your food. The chef is usually the best person to talk to since they are the ones actually in the kitchen who are aware of how food is handled. They can best assess if there are likely to be risks of cross-contamination.

Finally, choose simple foods to eat. If you feel safe after speaking to both the chef and the manager, scan the menu. Avoid foods that are layered in seasonings, sauces or anything overly-fancy. The simpler the food choice, the safer you are. I usually request a grilled piece of steak (with salt and pepper seasoning) and a baked potato. If you have nut allergies, avoiding salads and desserts, as the risk of cross-contamination in those foods are very high, is usually a good practice.

If you follow these steps, this should alleviate a lot of the worry associated with eating- out when you have allergies. It will also allow you to focus on making a good impression among your peers since you won’t be as concerned about the safety of your food. I hope you will find these tips helpful.

Saverio M.