Take the 2-minute tour ×
The Workplace Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for members of the workforce navigating the professional setting. It's 100% free, no registration required.

After I ate a peanut butter sandwich, the secretary sent an e-mail stating there is a person who is allergic to nuts and if using peanut butter clean any surfaces (including the fridge and counters) and the jar. First of all, I didn't want a medical emergency and was able to figure out who the person was and had a word with him. What should I have said? I said I was the one with the peanut butter and asked if there was anything I should know, to which he replied, “It could kill me” (he was partly joking when he said it like that, he has a sarcastic sense of humor).

I just want someone to say I’m allowed to have peanut butter or I’m not allowed to have peanut butter. Other than peanuts I eat other nuts like almonds. Who should I consult? My boss, the secretary or the individual?

I found the e-mail confusing, what did they mean by “clean the jar”? I guess they meant when you throw it in the garbage can.

In response to the comment, this is my first week, but does it matter?

share|improve this question
    
*comments removed* Remember what comments are for, and to Be Nice. –  jmac May 14 at 23:49

10 Answers 10

Peanut allergies can be extremely serious. I would personally err on the side of not eating peanut butter at the office, even if you are "allowed". If you make a mistake, you really could kill your co-worker.

Here are some resources for learning more about peanut allergies and anaphylaxis:

http://www.foodallergy.org/allergens/peanut-allergy

http://www.foodallergy.org/anaphylaxis

http://www.foodallergy.org/managing-food-allergies-at/work

Although deaths typically do not occur without direct ingestion, there is a possibility of a severe reaction just from touching something contaminated with peanut butter that hasn't been properly washed. There would be more risk if the allergic person put his food down on a counter that hadn't been properly cleaned, but I would assume that he is extra careful about where he puts his food.

Still, if it were me, I'd save the peanut butter for eating at home and eat other things at work. Obviously, that isn't a viable option if there are lots of people claiming lots of different severe allergies, but that doesn't appear to be the case in this situation. At least until you get to know the allergic employee better and have a chance to have a decent conversation with him. His initial response was flippant and unhelpful, but to me reflects genuine fear about people bringing his allergen into the office. I won't repeat them, but the links in Vietnhi's response show why a person with this allergy might be truly afraid for his life. This fear may also arise because allergic reactions tend to get worse with each exposure (see item 4 in the FAQ below).

http://foodallergies.stanford.edu/learn/food-allergy-faq.html

Note that I am not proposing that the workplace ban peanuts (or any other allergen) but rather that co-workers educate themselves. And having done so, they may wish to err on the side of caution (and kindness/courtesy in minimizing the allergic person's fears), if avoiding peanuts in the workplace is not a big inconvenience for them.

share|improve this answer
    
*comments removed* Remember what comments are for, and to Be Nice. –  jmac May 14 at 23:50

I’d say don’t eat peanut butter in the office. You don’t want to take a chance with somebody's life and it’s not worth somebody’s life. No matter how careful with that peanut butter, somebody else could be less careful with the peanut butter and put that person’s life in jeopardy. All it takes is for you to be distracted for a minute and leaving that peanut butter temporarily where it's not supposed to be.

The person with the peanut allergy may have other allergies related to nuts, so your best bet is to talk to that person directly about what kinds of food you can safely eat around that person. It’s no fun having the life of another person in your hands but it is what it is.

Frankly, I think the management should take no chances and send a memo and regular reminders to ban the peanut butter from the office. It’s not just you.

From the two references below, I’d say that for a peanut allergy sufferer, non-ingestive exposure can result in a visit to the emergency room. Accidental ingestion of even trace amounts can result in a life terminating experience. A couple of bits and crumbs of peanut butter somehow find their way into the peanut allergy sufferer’s food through negligence or carelessness and the peanut allergy sufferer is done.

From Peanut allergies can be deadly:

  1. Reactions can be triggered by even trace amounts of peanuts. “There are true risks when … enough peanut protein is really being disturbed. So if people are cracking open peanuts, especially in a confined space, a waiting area of a restaurant, you could have a very severe reaction because there’s enough peanut airborne there,” said Dr. Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins University.

  2. Jacqui Corba, 15, had her first reaction when she was 2, even though she wasn't eating peanuts herself. “I was on an airplane flight with my mom, and she ate peanuts and gave me a kiss on my face, I blew up like all over and I was red.” She also had an anaphylactic reaction at school after a classmate opened a bag of peanuts near her. Many schools now reserve separate tables where no peanut butter is allowed.

  3. Risinger and a boyfriend had earlier found out about the severity of her allergy the hard way. “I’ve had a reaction from kissing once ... he started kissing me, and my lips started tingling, and immediately I was like, ‘we have to stop, and I need to take Benadryl.’” To avoid what literally could be the kiss of death, Risinger gives her dates a choice: It's either peanuts and nuts, or her.

Peanut allergy…the shocking facts

  1. Peanut allergy is the most common cause of deaths from food allergy.
  2. Peanuts are the leading cause of severe food allergic reactions, followed by shellfish, fish, tree nuts and eggs. (Food Allergy Network)
  3. Peanut allergy can be characterized by more severe symptoms, such as gastrointestinal, skin and respiratory symptoms, than other food allergies and by a high rate of symptoms on minimal contact. (“Clinical characteristics of peanut allergy,”
  4. Severe sufferers also may experience potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock in response to ingestion of peanuts. Anaphylactic shock is an allergic reaction in which the release of histamine causes swelling, difficulty in breathing, heart failure, circulatory collapse, and sometimes death.
  5. As many as one-third of peanut-sensitive patients have severe reactions, such as fatal and near-fatal anaphylaxis.
share|improve this answer
10  
In fairness, the danger of such allergies is often misunderstood and therefore overstated. The nature and severity of the reaction varies greatly between individuals (and mode of exposure), and serious/life-threatening reactions are in fact quite rare. Doubly so in cases of transient/second-hand exposure as described in the OP. I'd agree that the simplest solution for the OP is to not eat peanut-butter in the office; but an outright ban is an overreaction. –  aroth May 13 at 4:40
    
*comments removed* Remember what comments are for, and to Be Nice. –  jmac May 14 at 23:50

How do you deal with food allergies in the workplace? has some basic stuff worth noting.

If you don't have experience with allergies then it may be worth having a private conversation with the person to get whatever details you need. The key here is that you might not know how to handle things and thus it is worth considering what questions do you want answered. Stories like Teen Dies After Deadly Peanut Butter Kiss are what you want to avoid.

You should consult your boss to see what is the policy. It may be that you are allowed peanut butter but you have to be careful with it.

Clean the jar meant that when you are done with the jar, to wash it out so that there isn't a residue that could cause a problem if the employee with the allergy comes into contact with the jar somehow.

share|improve this answer

What should I have said? I said I was the one with the peanut butter and asked if there was anything I should know, to which he replied "it could kill me".

That sounds like a massive overreaction. It sounds to me like something else is happening between you two. I have worked in multiple workplaces with folks who have various allergies & I assure you 100% nobody reacted the way you described to you simply eating a peanut butter sandwich.

For example, I have dog & cat hair allergies. Yet I have worked in offices with dogs & cats with no issue. Nothing formal, just would let people know I had an allergy & that was it.

Our department has pizza every now & then. Doughnuts as well. And someone who shared spaced with us had gluten allergies. We didn’t have to scrub every surface after every time we brought stuff in.

I genuinely think your co-worker is honest about their allergy. But their description of you basically having to create a “clean room” after each meal is just too extreme. I would try to talk to them & see if maybe you having separate utensils would help. And if they are resistant? Like I said at the beginning, something else is happening in their work relationship to you that might be causing a passive-aggresive over-reaction to this incident.

And here is an excerpt from Wikipedia—the full article has citations—that spells it out clearer:

While the most obvious and dangerous route for an allergic individual is unintentional ingestion, some reactions are possible through external exposure. Airborne particles in a farm- or factory-scale shelling or crushing environment, or from cooking, can produce respiratory effects in exposed allergic individuals. Empirical testing has discredited some reports of this type and shown some to be exaggerated. Residue on surfaces has been known to cause minor skin rashes, though not anaphylaxis. In The Peanut Allergy Answer Book, Harvard pediatrician Michael Young characterizes this secondary contact risk to allergic individuals as rare and limited to minor symptoms. Some reactions have been noted to be psychogenic in nature, the result of conditioning and belief rather than a true chemical reaction. Blinded, placebo-controlled studies by Sicherer et al. were unable to produce any reactions using the odor of peanut butter or its mere proximity.

If peanuts were so deadly that simply breathing the air a jar of peanut butter was opened could kill you don’t you think there would be more deaths? Don’t you think that stores that have full bins of shelled peanuts for bulk purchase would have been shut down by now because of the risk of exposure from dust & off gassing? It’s ingestion of the peanuts & oils that have kills people. It has not ever been casual exposure.

Also, since some people are quoting this hyper dramatic article where a teenage girl sadly died from peanut exposure, here is some perspective from the article in question:

A 15-year-old girl with a peanut allergy died after kissing her boyfriend, who had just eaten a peanut butter snack, hospital officials said Monday.

Direct ingestion of peanuts is what sadly killed her. Is this original poster making out with his co-worker? Pretty confident that is not the case. Casual exposure is not a death risk.

I stand by my original theory that there is something else at play with the interactions between the original poster & their co-worker. Yes, the co-worker has an allergy, but their reaction is so over-reactive to what happened it doesn’t ring as the true root of that reaction.

share|improve this answer
2  
*comments removed*: Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. –  jmort253 May 13 at 4:28

In all honesty I feel that you should not have sought out the person with peanut allergies in the first place. Health concerns are supposed to be kept between the employee and employer.

An employer does not send notifications like this for no reason and no employee should fear discrimination or ridicule for having a negative reaction to peanuts.

The proper course of action was:

  1. Read the email
  2. Realize that your actions could threaten someone's well-being
  3. Approach the secretary admitting that you violated the actions listed in the email
  4. Ask the secretary if they think it would better to simply avoid eating the food altogether
  5. Ask the secretary if the allergy extends to other things as well such as almonds

If the secretary does not know the answers to these questions then they will direct you to someone who does.

Seeking out the person with the allergy is considered a hostile gesture because if they wanted you to know who they were in the first place then they would have let you know.

share|improve this answer
    
*comments removed* Remember what comments are for, and to Be Nice. –  jmac May 14 at 23:52

No harm, no foul, you didn't know, etc. this time. Now that you have been informed, I'd strongly suggest avoiding bringing peanuts into the office.

Independent of the questions of lethality or non-lethality: If you know the scent of something makes a co-worker nauseous at the very least (and that is not an uncommon reaction for allergics to find themselves conditioned into), it is polite to avoid subjecting them to it. And peanuts are fairly aromatic; it's just that most of us don't have reason to be sensitive to them.

Whether "tree nuts" are also included in the ban, or conversely whether other legumes are and to what degree... Ask the person who reacts badly for advice. There are several different proteins in peanuts that people can develop allergies/intolerances to. One is shared with many (not all) tree nuts; I know someone who has that particular sensitivity. Other folks may react to something else.

share|improve this answer

In situations like this, where the type of reaction has the possibility of being deadly, it seems to me that the best course of action is an over abundance of caution.

Forgoing a PB sandwich while at work is a far smaller inconvenience than the possibility of causing discomfort (or worse) to the coworker.

So the choice here should be clear on what to do from a social perspective. The original email sounds to me like they where trying to leave it up to the employees to make the adult decision, which is to leave the PB at home while not trying to sound authoritarian.

Just do the right thing.

share|improve this answer

Based on your comment "this is my first week, but does it matter?" it is clear that you are the new member of the team. Therefore you need to ask your boss questions to determine what is the scope of the problem and what should you do.

Food allergies can range from inconsequential with no way for a person consuming the food to impact the allergy sufferer; to deadly where somebody consuming or cooking the food near them can cause a problem. We can't guess where they fall in this spectrum.

Because this is an issue that has existed for a while, others know what to do. The company and the employee have reached an understanding. It is possible that the employee has not been revealed to other employees, so start with your supervisor. They may give specific guidelines, or direct you to HR, or even to the person with the allergy. Their answer may even depend on how likely you are to interact with the individual.

share|improve this answer

It's important for everyone, especially those with potentially fatal food allergies, to weed out and penalize the "drama queens" who exaggerate allergies and other conditions either for attention or just to bully. There is a lot of cynism about food allergies precisely because the average person probably runs into 20 drama queens for every real person at risk. This cry wolf phenomenon is very dangerous to the people actually beset by wolves.

It's pretty easy to tell how serious a person's allergies are. People with with serious allergies carry epipens If a person doesn't, then they don't really think they have a potentially fatal allergy.

Few things in life are more frightening than the idea that almost anything you encounter could be covered in an invisible poison that could kill you horribly in minutes. It kind of seizes your attention. People with real, potentially fatal allergies just don't screw around, they carry the technology that will keep them alive.

If someone doesn't, then they aren't that afraid.

I pretty sure that under US law, any company with more than 50 employees will have to have to identify people at risk and have an emergency plan in place to deal with them coming in contact with an allergen, just like they do with diabetics and other people with sudden onset health issues. That will include epipens in all first aid kits as well as personnel trained and assigned to their use and aware of which individuals will may need care.

The steps suggested in the email are actually not sufficient to protect a person with severe peanut allergies. People have died from coming into contact with the dust from crushed peanuts in an discarded candy bar that rolled under a desk. Likewise, you could kill them just by shaking hands after having eaten anything with peanuts hours before.

The only real protection is not trying to remove all peanut proteins from an area, an impossible task because they are a common food, but to prepare for the certain eventuality that they the allergic will come in contact and have an attack.

In a severe attack, you will have as little as 4 minutes to understand what is going on and administer the epiniphrine. If your not prepared to respond before the attack occurs, you probably won't make it.

Your employer should require the at risk employee to carry an epipen at all times as well as make sure that the employee is identified to at least several members of management (so someone onsite will always know) and any designated onsite first responders (which you should have in every work place.) Likewise, if the allergy is not severe, then the employee in question needs education on how they endanger others by crying wolf, not to mention the corrosive effects such behavior has on team cohesion.

share|improve this answer
1  
this doesn't seem to offer anything anything substantial over two top voted answers posted a day ago –  gnat May 14 at 13:33
2  
+1 for explicitly mentioning epipens. Disagree with your characterization of "drama queens", though. And I am uncomfortable with your 7x24 readiness to accuse people of "crying wolf". –  Vietnhi Phuvan May 15 at 0:02

My sister has a severe lactase allergy (not lactose, which is far milder in general, she's allergic to milk protein).

Even eating from a plate that hadn't been properly cleaned (read, washed vigorously in hot water and detergent) after having been used to serve something baked in butter, those few molecule thick layer of milk protein will cause her to be seriously ill for days or weeks.

Yet she doesn't demand that people sterilise the room where they eat a sandwich or drink some milk. She just takes care to use her own plates, cuttlery, and cups. Problem solved.

People who act like your colleague are looking for an excuse to cause trouble for others, others like you. They're abusing their allergies to get special status, maybe he's looking to work everyone else out of the room so he ends up having an office to himself?

And of course, especially in the US, many companies will give in to his demands for fear or lawsuits. Which is how we ended up with so much special treatment for self-proclaimed special interest groups in the first place, making such behaviour effective to get ahead in the world.

share|improve this answer
    
*comments removed* Remember what comments are for, and to Be Nice. –  jmac May 14 at 23:53

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.