Co-Workers and Your Allergies

in Food Allergy
Published: September 23, 2010

For adults with allergies, the workplace presents a whole set of challenges when it comes to educating co-workers and employers. But the fact remains: you have the right to a safe environment. Here are some tips on how to deal with common issues like the business lunch and the unsympathetic colleague.

Coping with Colleagues

Q. How can I impress upon my colleagues and supervisors that my allergy is serious?

A. Dr. Mitch Persaud, a Saskatoon allergist, says be specific. Use one anecdote to explain what you were exposed to and how, and what reaction resulted. If that doesn’t work, Dr. Donald Stark, a Vancouver allergist, suggests that you show your colleagues your MedicAlert bracelet and get your allergist to write a letter to your employer.

Q. How can I stay included in work events such as restaurant outings or potlucks?

A. Bring your own entrée to a potluck and take the first serving to avoid cross-contamination, says Stephanie Boll, a 36-year-old injury prevention adviser from Vancouver. Elizabeth Cooper, 24, is a group home worker who lives in Winnipeg and has allergies to nuts, citrus and shellfish. She volunteers to organize parties at restaurants she trusts. Or she’ll host the party at her house and check the food as guests come through the door.

Q. How do I ask a colleague to stop wearing a scent that makes me sick?

A. Ottawa civil servant Lynne Vail, 33, has endured violent asthma-like reactions to perfumes on the job. Most of her colleagues get the seriousness, as she has been left gasping for air after exposure to cologne. Vail will approach a co-worker one-on-one and ask him or her to leave the fragrance at home. She also gives co-workers examples of products that don’t bother her, and has even offered to buy such scents.

Q. How do I avoid appearing rude at a business lunch when my food choices are limited?

A. Rob Kania, 23, says his peanut allergy stops him from ordering dessert in restaurants. To keep business associates eating their chocolate mousse from thinking: “This guy wants to get out of here,” Kania orders a bottled water or another coffee. “That usually gets people off your back.”

The Rudeness of Others

Try as we might to put on a happy face when telling colleagues and clients about our allergies, polite explanations are sometimes rewarded with snide remarks, know-it-all suggestions or just an embarrassment of questions.

‚Ä¢ Sandra Carpenter of Lewisporte, Newfoundland, is a consulting nurse. She is at risk of anaphylaxis to ASA and its derivatives, including sodium benzoate and tartra-zine. She can’t eat many fruits and vegetables, most prepared foods, and anything with colours and preservatives. Colleagues often ask her to list what she can and cannot eat. Their responses are not always sympathetic – or sensitive.

“Just as well you were dead, if you can’t eat all that,” one said to her. “I’d rather be dead than not be able to eat chocolate.” She has also heard: “What does your husband say? He must really hate it.”

‚Ä¢ For Andrea Forsyth, who must avoid fish, seafood, and tree nuts, a conversation about her food allergies occasionally prompts comments about her physique. “So that’s why you’re so thin,” the Torontonian has been told, and it bothers her. “A lot of people just assume that I don’t eat, that I’m allergic to everything.”

‚Ä¢ June Traptow, a Red Deer, Alberta businesswoman, can’t eat dairy, gluten, eggs or nuts. She gets annoyed when a colleague sitting next to her at a banquet says: “Why can’t you just take the coating off the chicken?” Traptow has a comeback she’s threatening to use: “Let’s drop your food in the mud, let’s wash it off, and you eat it.”

See Also: On the Job with Allergies

First published in Allergic Living magazine, Winter 2006 (c) Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.