Allergies at work – are you in the clear?

Rates of allergies have risen sharply in the last 20 years. According to Allergy UK, apparently 44 per cent of adults in the UK suffer from one or more types of allergy. As a result, it is now increasingly likely that employers will need to support staff within the workplace who suffer from allergies. For those at greatest risk, the tiniest trace of an allergen can trigger severe symptoms and, in some cases, cause a fatal or near-fatal reaction.

Pret a Manger had two cases; one in 2016 and another in 2017. In one case, Pret blamed, its supplier Co Yo, who has denied responsibility. While Pret has apologised for the deaths, it still begs a question about who is responsible. Pret has agreed to better labelling of its products in the future.

So, what are the areas of concern for employers?

Firstly, if an allergy amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments, and the employee will be protected against less favourable treatment. For allergies which are serious, it is highly likely that the definition of disability will be met.

Employers have legal obligations under health and safety legislation, so far as is reasonably practicable, to protect employees by removing or reducing workplace risks. Some allergy-related incidents will need to be reported under Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrence Regulations 2003 (RIDDOR).

You might also think about seeking advice from your employers’ liability insurer, who may recommend steps to take, including potentially a disclaimer.

Care should be taken when trying to ascertain information regarding prospective employees’ medical conditions, especially prior to offering a role, to avoid potential discrimination. However, you may need to make some enquiries to deal with the issue of reasonable adjustments.

Maintaining confidentiality about employees’ medical conditions ought to be considered, for example, when seeking to ensure colleagues are adequately trained to deal with the needs of specific allergy sufferers. It is a good idea to speak to the employee who suffers from the allergy to get their guidance on the support they may need, alongside taking medical advice.

If other employees breach express instructions related to protecting colleagues with allergies (e.g. no consumption of nuts in the office), you may need to consider taking disciplinary action.

So, what steps can you take, as the employer?

  • Make sure you communicate effectively with employees with allergies to ascertain the severity of their allergies and what the potential known triggers are. This will also apply if someone develops an allergy during their employment.
  • Encourage employees to formally declare their allergies so that adjustments can be made if required.   Asking health questions pre-employment can sometimes be unlawful, but there are exceptions, such as if they are necessary for the purposes of establishing whether the applicant will be able to carry out a function that is intrinsic to the work concerned.
  • Seek to identify reasonable adjustments where the allergy could be a disability, for example: relocating an employee’s workstation; looking for an alternative role; providing specific equipment or materials for an allergy sufferer to use; and a policy to help prevent contamination or triggers.
  • First-aid training may be important in ensuring legal obligations are met, such as supporting first aiders in the use of life-saving equipment.
  • It may be worth considering a general policy relating to allergens and/or clauses in the allergy sufferer’s contract, to outline the obligations on the employee to look after their health and safety too.

If you believe your organisation would find some guidance about allergies useful please get in touch with Hafton by giving us a call or email us at info@haftonconsultancy.com.

Anna Stobart