Does allergy = unemployable?

Being an adult with an allergy is a huge responsibility. You spend all those years a child with your parents or carers looking out for you and basically dealing with it on your behalf. They speak to the head teacher at your school and get an emergency plan in place, they make sure any parties or play dates are nut free. Then suddenly you’re out there in the big wide world on your own and you have to take on those responsibilities by yourself; something you’ve never had to do before and it can be extremely daunting.

There are many problems for the allergic person to encounter; new friends who don’t really ‘get it’, boyfriends or girlfriends, random kisses in nightclubs, nightclubs and pubs themselves, eating out at restaurants. The list is endless but today I want to talk about what it’s like to be in the working world with an allergy.

I must admit to my own naiveté here. It never crossed my mind as a child or a teenager growing up that the workplace was going to be such a risky place in terms of my allergy. I guess I stupidly thought it would be like school; I’d go in and speak to the manager and that would be it; nut free zone. What I never took the time to factor in was the way that colleagues who are adults themselves and very aware of their own wants and needs are completely different to children who are told you can’t come to school with nuts.

Children follow rules a lot more than adults do. If adult at home and adult at school both tell them no nuts then they know it’s not allowed. ‘Leonie could die’ is a serious thing to a child death still holds that fear for them and they take it seriously. Adults however are much more orientated to their own needs. ‘Leonie could die’ suddenly takes on a less serious meaning, it’s just one of those things that they seem to think isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t hold that level of fear for them and especially if they don’t work with you directly they seem to just ‘forget’ about it.

For the most part my experiences haven’t been too bad. I have been lucky in the respect that most places I’ve worked for have been extremely reasonable about it and thanks to my heightened awareness of my own allergy I’ve managed to avoid any sticky situations that could have come my way. However not all experiences have been great and after a very recent experience I decided to share my stories in the hope it would raise further awareness and put a stop to what I can only describe as a selfish culture currently among adults when it comes to the risk of allergies.

I know some people may balk at my use of the word selfish but it’s hard to find another word to describe it. The way I try to explain it to people is (rightly or wrongly) that you wouldn’t bring a gun or a knife to work and shoot or stab somebody. It works the same way there’s an equal risk of fatality or survival. It is a choice to continue to eat an allergen around somebody with an airborne allergy. It is a choice to expose an allergic person to something that can kill them. (I do excuse anybody here who absolutely HAS to eat nuts because of their own medical condition or because they are vegan).

The first ‘bad’ experience I had as an allergic person was in a surprising situation. I had previously worked in pubs and nightclubs, restaurants and offices and most people were accepting and helpful where possible. The reason this situation was surprising is because it was in a small office with no more than 10 employees; 3 of us in the office and 7 engineers who worked out on site or in the warehouse type area at the office. I had explained about my allergy and as far as I was aware it was being taken seriously, however it turned out it wasn’t. First a girl in the office was caught eating a snickers bar in secret in the kitchen she then disposed of the wrapper not in the bin but just on top of the bin. This was a huge risk as I used the kitchen fairly often and of course used the bin including touching the bin. This ended quite badly in my mum coming in (yay! Mum to the rescue) and drumming it in to the point that the health and safety advisor got involved and created risk assessments. This probably ended a lot better than it could have thanks to my mum but it certainly put things in perspective for me. I realised that maybe I downplayed my allergy a little bit. The girl responsible for the snicker said ‘I know you said fatal but I didn’t realise how fatal’ *face palms* but for future reference I realised I needed to describe my allergy in more detail and without embarrassment in order to make people understand the consequences of allergy and allergic reaction.

The second incident was not really a singular one but more a ‘where not to work when you have an allergy’ guide. I was working in a large call centre with over 500 employees just on the section I worked. Due to shift patterns ‘hot desking’ (not having a specific desk of your own but just finding a seat where you could) was in place. Although my team was aware of my allergy and knew not to bring nuts into the unit, an announcement had been made across the whole unit but with that many people and the extremely high turnover that comes as par for the course with call centres it was just impossible to make sure everyone was aware. This was a really scary time for me I took to obsessively cleaning my desk, keyboard and mouse wherever I was sitting; I was nervous and paranoid and kept imagining itching and breathing problems in my panic. Often I’d come to a desk and find a snickers wrapper or a KP peanut bag left behind and I have to try and find somewhere else to sit, or I’d inevitably end up sat next to the one person on the unit who’d brought some nutty chocolate in as a snack. I got out of there as soon as possible and back into a smaller office environment but it was a living nightmare of nervousness while I was there. Even the people in my training group who’d had the information drummed into them everyday still kept turning up with Kinder Buenos because they ‘didn’t know it was nuts’ or presumed my allergy was just to peanuts.

Finally the third (and hopefully, though doubtfully last) incident came recently and is what prompted me to write this blog post about it. Having moved house I decided to have a look around for a job a bit closer to home as I was struggling with the commute. I was referred through an agency to a nice little company about 30 minutes from where I live. The hours were right, the money was right and they seemed a nice team. I was the first and only candidate they interviewed and within an hour they’d asked me back for a work trial. I hadn’t mentioned my allergies to them as I often don’t see the point at interview, plus my agency knew about it so I presumed they had made the company aware. On the trial day however I brought it up. I’ll set the scene here a little, this was an office with about 12 employees, the team I’d be working on is in a segregated area of their own in the larger open plan office, the kitchen was in a separate area behind a closed door down the hall and downstairs was another kitchen belonging to a small printing team of around 6 employees.

From the off there were issues about my allergy, the girl on my team who I would be working closely with explaining she liked having brazil nuts with her lunch and didn’t really want to stop eating them. In addition to this there were 3 vegans who worked there who kept almond milk in the fridge. A snack box came in and left bagged treats for people to purchase all of which were nuts and when we went downstairs so I could meet the printing team the manager was eating nuts from a pot. Obviously I was on high alert but these were not problems I could see no resolution to. We have a snack box at my current office and it has sweets in it, it’s supplied by the same company so the new employer could ask for this to be changed. As for the vegan milk in the fridge I couldn’t see this being a problem at all it’s in a carton in the fridge I’m not going to pick it up by mistake and I bring tinned soup to work for lunch so wouldn’t even need to use the fridge. As for the girl who eats Brazil nuts, well again I can only describe it as selfish behaviour that she couldn’t replace her nutty snack with something else in order to prevent me from having an allergic reaction. My prospective new manager expressed concern about touching door handles and desks and I explained that’s just part of everyday life. Passing through the train station I might put my hand on the banister, opening a public toilet door I have to touch the handle. As allergy sufferers although great care must be taken, at the same time we can’t be wrapped in bubble wrap and refused the opportunity for a normal life.

Their attitudes changed dramatically after this. It had gone from ‘when’ you start to ‘if’ you start and instead of showing me things they put me onto a menial task of typing up some comments from a survey. At the end of the working day they advised me they would be in touch on Wednesday to let me know if I‘d been successful. I’d overheard some conversations about them getting in people for interviews early Wednesday morning and knew there and then that it wasn’t going to happen. By Thursday my agency had emailed me to say that the company had decided to go with someone else.

Call me paranoid and maybe I am wrong and the allergy had nothing to do with it but I can’t help but look at the fact that they were eager to employ me, so eager they hadn’t even bothered interviewing anyone else, so eager that they were phrasing it ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. They were happy with my experience and credentials, they were happy with the work I produced for them on the trial then the minute they hear about my allergy their attitude changes. To me that can be the only reason.

It sparked a debate with my partner and his work colleagues when he mentioned it to them in conversation. Many of his colleagues stated that they felt I should have declared my allergy at interview stage in order to give the employer the opportunity to decline me as an employee. My partner and I felt that this is the wrong attitude to take. If someone applied for a job and had a disability such as being in a wheelchair a company is not allowed to discriminate if they are capable of doing the job, the world of work is constantly shouting about being ‘equal opportunities’ yet here I am a prime example of when this is not the case.

So more than anything to settle the debate what are people’s opinion on this? Should an allergy be classed as a disability which needs to be declared? Should allergy sufferers be isolated within a work place because people WANT to eat allergens? Should an employer be able to refuse you employment based on your allergy?

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