Category Archives: Allergies in the Workplace

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.

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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.  

Always Packing: Carrying Your Auto-Injector  

Live_Main Auto Injector

It all started with a fanny-pack. It was a bright blue, yellow zippered, Tigger-themed fanny-pack to be exact. From the time I was five, to about twelve years old, this was the most important accessory I had. Why? It was the vehicle for carrying my auto-injector (my safety net and my security blanket).  Back in the 90’s, my bright blue fanny-pack was my ‘go-to’ item; but I quickly outgrew it and needed to find some other way to carry my auto-injector. Luckily, being a girl, I would eventually grow into carrying a purse with me everywhere. But, during my high school days, I hit those awkward preteen/ teen years. I was too young to carry a purse and too old for a fanny pack. I no longer had a permanent desk to put it in or one specific teacher to hold onto it for me. My locker was too far away and I wasn’t allowed to take a book bag with me everywhere. I needed to find another option to discretely and effectively transport my auto-injector while in school. Lucky for me, I had access to many carriers and tricks to help conceal my auto injector and keep it on me at all times.

I purchased a much smaller, stylish black case that I was able to put in my pencil case. But I also made sure I had one in my book bag in my locker at all times. Getting through those high school years was tough. Most people yearn to fit in. And I was much the same. So I refrained from telling many people about my auto-injector in my pencil case. The people I made aware were my teachers and a few close friends. Now I realize the importance of telling people about the location of my auto-injector and how to use it in case of an emergency.

As I grew up, I became more comfortable with my auto-injector and with my food allergies. I was able to find new ways to carry it around discretely. Being a girl, I was lucky to have the excuse of always having a purse with me. The problem I soon arrived at involved different sized purses and singular-sized auto-injectors. From small little clutches to extremely large purses, I was either fighting to find it or struggling to put it in. Luckily I’ve found a few tricks and discovered, through my male friends, that they also had some unique and creative ways to carry around their auto-injectors.  For me, I’ve always felt it is easier to carry my auto-injector in the side pocket of my purse. It’s easy to grab if there is an emergency and it’s easy to find if I can’t tell someone. There will be no more routing around in the deep caverns of my purse. With the new advancements in auto-injectors, it’s easier to carry them in pant pockets or in those pesky little clutches and purses I mentioned earlier. Some new auto-injectors are as small as a business card with a little width. They can be easily placed in most little bags. As for my male counterparts, carrying an auto-injector can be a little trickier as far as not drawing major attention. One the best ways I’ve seen them carried is in an ankle holster (a lá James Bond) that fits neatly under most pants. Those new auto-injectors I mentioned above are smaller and able to fit in most pockets discretely. There is also many companies offering carrying cases for various activities like belts for outdoor/upbeat activities from Waist Buddy (http://www.omaxcare.com/WaistBuddy.html) or the versatile brand Allergy Pack ( http://www.allergypack.com/) that offer many different styles to carry one or multiple auto-injectors. They even make carrying cases for asthma inhalers.

It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, what kind of purse you’re sporting or what pants you may be in. It is always important to have your auto-injector with you when you go out.  It can be cumbersome and it can be awkward; but nothing is worse than needing it in an emergency and not having it. So remember to keep it with you. Tell someone you have it with you and where it is located. Think of it as the best and most practical fashion accessory you have; it also just so happens to go with any outfit.

Arianne K.

 

Dining with Clients and Cayenne: Guest Post by Patricia J. Pawlak

Pat (dining with cayenne allergy)

 

I have been fortunate enough to have a career where I traveled the world and had to entertain. For me, there is something exhilarating about sitting down with clients for a culinary experience, getting to know them, and knowing you may have to close a deal. In that situation, you want to stay focused and be charming. Nothing zaps the energy out of a dining experience more then having the focus of the evening on your food allergy. I dread the drama of it all and my clients enduring the waiter/ kitchen sprint because of my food allergies.

I have developed such an intolerance to all capsicum, i.e. cayenne, paprika and cumin, that my throat closes up, I start to shake and then, within 10/15 minutes, I actually projectile vomit. It comes on so quickly, violently and unexpectedly that, even during a lunch, I was rushed to the hospital projectiling (as I ruined my new red silk suit).

After several of these rushed trips to the ER, I finally went to an allergy specialist who diagnosed my malaise as the worst possible allergic reaction one can suffer and still survive.

Thanks to Emeril, and the influx of some certain cuisines, most restaurants have infused, charged, and drilled their menus with chili, cayenne, and paprika and made it impossible for me to dine in many restaurants. I have discovered that even the nicest restaurants now marinate all their meat, fish, and chicken dishes with some form of capsicum. That means even a chicken salad is off limits and watch those candied pecans; they have chili on them now.  For some reason, many restaurant salad dressings have cayenne or paprika—even a simple Caesar dressing.  Deserts, from cheesecake to tiramisu, are now spiked with cayenne.  I have even been served strawberries with a “surprise.” Thankfully, I asked what the surprise was or the restaurant would have been surprised! I have gone to restaurants and not been able to have any dish on the menu.

My strategy now is to check out a menu first before I suggest a restaurant for business.  I ignored my own advice last week; I went to a good sushi restaurant thinking that I would not have to bring up my food allergy in front of my clients. To my chagrin, I opened the menu and the first sushi listed was “Jalapeño Sushi” and, along down the line of the menu, most had heat. I had no other choice but to have the proverbial conversation to make sure what dishes I could eat.

The frustration lies not only in its increase of use but in its use in dishes that historically never had any form of heat.  Even when I order a dish that couldn’t possibly have cayenne, Fettuccini Alfredo, I have had it come with cayenne sprinkled all over.  I have asked for plain poached fish (“nothing on it, plain, please”) trying to be discreet. And the fish came covered in chili flakes. When I explained finally that I had an allergy, I was told “You don’t know what good is!” This is not about taste, this is about health and, in my opinion, our taste buds are being hijacked by all this heat!

I am meeting more and more people daily who are developing this allergy due to the proliferation of this spice.  Hopefully, chefs will begin to take notice and will begin to create more interesting dishes instead of just throwing in the heat.
Patricia

Securing Allergy-Safe Lunchrooms at Work: The How-to Guide

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So how exactly do you get an allergy-safe lunchroom at work? The bad news is there aren’t really any resources out there that give you a step-by-step guide to securing one. Now, that wasn’t meant to be a lead up to me saying here’s my step-by-step guide. I, however, have successfully made multiple lunchrooms peanut/tree nut free, and generally allergy-safe, at different jobs over the years. From that experience, I will share tips and give some advice that you can apply to your job-site and hopefully make your lunchroom more allergy-friendly.

First thing to do is ask. If you never ask, you will never make any progress; you will begin and end with no results. This step may seem too simple; but, sometimes just asking really is the most effective strategy. When you ask for an allergy-safe lunchroom at work, be prepared. Questions about the severity of your allergy will arise. Your boss is probably just asking these questions to better understand your situation. Be sure to express all of your concerns and clearly explain the importance of feeling safe around food at work. Suggest helpful solutions, whether this is a peanut/nut-free lunchroom, or specific communal cooking ware designated for allergen-free cooking. It really depends upon your comfort level.

Secondly, educate your co-workers. Many people have grown up oblivious to the world of food allergies. It is this type of person who may, at first, be resistant to having an allergy-friendly lunchroom at work. The best approach is to educate! Teach everyone about the signs, symptoms, and severity of food allergies in general before narrowing in on your specific situation. It might be helpful to bring this up at a staff meeting where everyone is present in the room to hear your concerns. If this sounds intimidating, ask your boss whether they can address it at an upcoming staff meeting. You can also open the discussion up to co-workers and ask if anyone else has a food allergy or knows someone with a food allergy. Chances are someone will; this could help give you support in the pursuit of an allergy-safe lunchroom.

Thirdly, stay positive! Positivity is contagious (in my opinion). If you hit a speed bump in the road, you don’t turn around and say “I give up.” You slow down and keep driving. The same idea applies to this process. Stay positive, do what you can, and keep pushing for that lunchroom!

Lastly, you can always contact the company’s Human Resources department and explain your concerns. The members of this department are trained to help bring staff concerns forward and work on a feasible solution. It may require a little back-and-forth communication; but something important like this is worth putting in a little extra effort.

These tips may not entirely secure an allergy-safe lunchroom; but, if you’ve done everything in your power, then at least you can say you tried! I’d be willing to bet that a reasonable solution will be found if you keep an open mind and never give up on what you want. Have you had successes or challenges putting an allergy-friendly lunchroom into place in your workplace? Comment below!

 

Dylan

 

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

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When it comes to bringing up allergies in the workplace, I think a lot of us get nervous, anxious, or even just simply forget because of all the new information we are trying to learn at a new job. From my personal experience, the sooner I let my co-workers know about my severe peanut and tree nut allergies, the safer I feel at work. A few different strategies have worked for me in the past. I will share them with you here.

1)      I had the unique opportunity during an interview to mention my allergies. The question had something to do with describing a time when I had to deal with a high pressure situation and what I did. I decided to step outside the box and share two experiences. One was a workplace experience and the other was an allergy experience. I explained how my brother was having an anaphylactic reaction and, being allergic to nuts myself, I knew how to use the auto-injector and the steps that needed to be taken to help my brother. This turned out to be a simple way of opening up a conversation about allergies with a company that I would end up working for. Sometimes explaining your allergies before you even get the job can be useful and insightful for both parties. Even if you do not get the job, at least you can walk away knowing that you advocated for others with allergies who may work for that company in the future!

2)      Another strategy that I have used to tell my co-workers about my allergies is, essentially, the same calm, cool strategy I use when meeting new people. I mention my allergies and their severity casually, such as before a team meeting where donuts are provided: “No thank you. I’m severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.” This is almost always followed up with questions about what I can eat, where I keep my auto-injector, how to use it, and the list goes on. This is a simple, yet quite effective strategy.

3)      I have never done this; but I have heard of people emailing their boss to explain their allergies. From the abundance of emails everyone seems to go through in a day, I’m not sure this is the best strategy; but it has worked for some and maybe it will work for you! Just be sure to keep the email optimistic and informative in case your boss has never had any experiences with allergies before.

4)      A final method I have used is very blunt. I went straight to my new boss (the owner of the company) and explained my allergies to her. After my initial explanation, I asked if she had any questions and we entered into an informative dialogue back and forth for nearly twenty minutes. When we concluded, she took it upon herself to endorse a “peanut/nut free” unwritten policy where no peanut or tree nut containing food was allowed to be eaten in the office. I never asked for this exceptionally kind gesture; but my boss understood the severity of the allergy and would not take any risks. Based on my experiences, I find this strategy to be the most effective.

It may seem scary and nerve-wracking to put yourself in a place of vulnerability by explaining your allergy to co-workers in the workplace. Yet your safety is paramount. Take a deep breath and spread the word! You may be surprised how well your workplace takes your allergy information.

 

Dylan