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Employers are responsible for employees attending training

What is your workplace policy on protecting (accommodating) employees and others who have food allergies, environmental sensitivities and other “hidden” or “non-evident” disabilities?

Twice in the last month the issue of food allergies in the workplace has been brought to my attention by workshop participants.

“Sorry, I have to leave right away. The person sitting behind me is eating nuts and I’m terribly allergic.” Before I had the opportunity to respond, or to rectify, this situation, this participant rushed from the training room. I didn’t even have her name for the purposes of discussing the situation with my client (the participant’s employer).

At another training event, lunch was just being served when I overheard a participant saying to a food server, “Do you think I could get a gluten-free meal?” Forty minutes later the participant received her meal— after the session had resumed for the afternoon!

I am a workplace human rights, health and safety expert and, frankly, am embarrassed and frustrated that both these events occurred on my watch. In order to prevent similar incidents from happening in your workplace, here is some basic advice:

  • Food allergies and environmental sensitivities MAY indicate the existence of a disability. Where this is the case, every employer has a legal obligation to ensure that affected employees are protected.
  • The employer is responsible for the safe working environment of the worker even when that environment is off your premises.
  • Don’t waste time splitting hairs trying to decide if these and other conditions are in fact disabilities that you must accommodate. It is just good business sense to take steps to prevent medical emergencies and other unpleasantness from occurring in your workplace.

Advice to employees:

  • YOU must tell your employer what your needs are as a result of your disability
  • Provide the necessary information to your employer including medical and other expert reports
  • Involve yourself in the accommodation process at work—make suggestions on how your disability can best be accommodated at your workplace

Advice to employers:

  • Take accommodation requests seriously
  • Gather “need to know” information only; you don’t need to know a person’s diagnosis, only what assistance they may require at work
  • Get involved in the accommodation process and be creative
  • Get to work on accommodation solutions immediately even though it may take some time to complete the arrangements
  • Be willing to pay for accommodations including the cost of required medical reports and examinations
  • Be aware of conditions when your employees are offsite or travelling

Information on an employers’ duty to accommodate can be found in any HR publication published by First Reference Inc., and on the Fact Sheets posted on the
Ontario Human Rights Commission website.

Andrew Lawson
Learn Don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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