Q: We have an employee with severe nut allergies. What accommodations do you recommend?
A: In some circumstances, severe allergies can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.
Begin by engaging in a dialog with the employee to see what accommodations would allow them to safely do their job. For example, if the office provides snacks, your employee might want you to keep snacks with nuts in a separate, clearly-labelled cabinet.
Another accommodation may be to send out a notice about allergies when employees bring in treats for the office or when the office hosts a potluck. Just make sure not to single anyone out. You could say something like the following:
“Please note that some employees may have a severe food allergy to peanuts. Because of this potentially harmful situation, we ask anyone who prepares a dish made with peanuts and/or peanut oil to clearly identify their dish as such. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.”
Remember, you may not be able to accommodate every request. If the only possible accommodation to address the employee’s needs would be an undue hardship, you are not required to provide that accommodation. If an employee indicates, for example, that they would have a severe, life-threatening reaction simply by walking into a kitchen area where other employees may have had a meal or snack with nuts, taking the necessary precautions to ensure their safety would necessitate policing all food items entering the premises. This large undertaking would likely qualify as an undue hardship.
As with any request for accommodation under the ADA, the key will be to evaluate the options with the employee and determine if they are something that you can reasonably accommodate.