Accommodating environmental and food sensitivities

Environmental and food sensitivities: what they are, impacts and how they can be addressed at work

Reactions and allergies, from the spring snuffles to the more severe reactions to foods, products and environmental conditions, are becoming increasingly common. People with environmental sensitivities can suffer disabling reactions to substances in our air, water and food in concentrations that are acceptable to the rest of the population, including artificial lighting, heat, cold, and excess sounds. If an employee reports having such reactions or sensitivities, they must be treated seriously and provided with reasonable accommodations.

Toxins, irritants and sensitisers include, chemicals in furniture, building materials and carpets, hand sanitisers, perfumes and other scented products, air pollutants, some natural products, dust, mould, pollen, smoke.

The most common food allergies, reactions and intolerances are to shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soybeans but others can also cause disabling reactions. For more information, see Nutrition Foundation.

Reactions can cause a range of physical and behavioural responses; for instance, headaches, asthma, breathing difficulties, ringing ears, sinusitis, visual disturbances, eczema, numbness, pain, arthritic symptoms, stomach aches, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, sleep disruption, exhaustion, poor concentration, memory loss, and anaphylactic shock. For more information visit Allergy NZ.

These reactions not only have a significant impact on the quality of life but also result in absenteeism and/or presenteeism issues – when an employee comes to work in ill health and does not work at full capacity.

These people are not hypochondriacs. These are very real issues from which some people suffer. They may suffer all the more because of inadequate workplace response and sometimes an element of embarrassment.

Workplace accommodations: What managers can do

In the first instance, the manager should work with the staff member to understand the potential risks and what could be done to safeguard them against those risks.

Ask them what you can do to make their work environment safe and comfortable. 

  • Be aware that sensitivities are individual and variable
  • Be aware of the employee’s needs
  • Engage in open two-way communication
  • Know emergency procedures
  • Be knowledgeable about triggers to environmental sensitivity
  • Remove known triggers
  • Prevent and manage discrimination and harassment against employees who are environmentally sensitive

Every effort must be made to provide reasonable accommodation

Accommodation requires an individual assessment of the needs of the employee requesting it. What is needed must be decided with all the relevant parties’ participation, e.g. employee, manager, HS&W manager, HR manager, building manager, and external specialists if appropriate.

Reasonable accommodation is not a favour or a courtesy. It is the law. It is not a lowering of standards but a recognition that circumstances may require some fine tuning to support individual performance on the job. Accommodations need to be provided in a timely manner.

A request for reasonable accommodation may need to be supported by communication and awareness sessions with co-workers.

Types of accommodations

  • Air purifier, heater, fan, noise-cancelling headphones, tolerable furnishings and furniture, only tolerated cleaning products used in the immediate work area, co-workers not wearing scented products, regular cleaning of air filters, own office, good ventilation, openable\ windows.
  • Where food is prepared and served, ensuring plates and utensils are cleaned thoroughly in hot, soapy water and surfaces are wiped down to prevent accidental contact with allergens. Catering for functions are discussed with the employees so disabling reactions can be avoided.
  • Flexible working arrangements, working from home, working different hours, quiet part of the office or a separate office to work. Routines, plans and strategies for upcoming events are developed.
  • Regular communications to all employees reminding them to be aware and accommodate people with environmental sensitivities.

Find out more

For more information, read Accommodating employees with environmental sensitivities, a comprehensive resource from Canada.