You already know that cleanliness in your workplace is important for preventing office allergies, which can have a pretty big impact on overall productivity. The stats support the need for a germ-free space: Allergies affect about 50 million Americans, and studies show that allergies play a prominent role in workplace absences compared to numerous health conditions.

But what about food at the office? It’s nice to treat your workforce to a catered lunch every so often, but you need to tread lightly in this regard and not simply order 10 pizzas without considering food options more carefully. Food can play just as big of a role as an unclean meeting room when it comes to affecting the allergic, so it’s time to brush up on what you can do to make sure that an innocent office lunch doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

Cater With Caution

If you’re planning to serve food in the office, you need to approach this situation with the proper tact. The solution here is simple: Get to know your workforce! While your employees aren’t required to disclose health issues, it’s still worth sending around a survey about food preferences; if an employee or two are allergic to nuts, they aren’t likely to want to hide this fact. To use another example, if an employee has gone gluten-free, there are plenty of alternative products available. If you can document which employees have specific allergies, you can plan to order from a restaurant that caters to those needs and offer some flexibility to workers.

Mind the Fridge

Most offices have a break room or lunch room with a refrigerator for employee use, but the mingling of food in the fridge can be a problem for allergy sufferers. To be sensitive to employees’ needs, consider adding a second fridge to foster some separation of problem foods.

Keeping the refrigerator clean and sanitary is its own battle, and someone needs to take responsibility on a regular basis. Organize a rotating cleaning schedule on Fridays so different employees take on the task of cleaning the fridge out every week. Be sure that the responsible co-workers send an all-company email ahead of the scheduled cleaning. This will ensure that good fridge habits are top of mind on a more regular basis for everyone in the office.

You should watch for forgotten food and condiments in particular, as everyone can agree that mold has no place in your workspace. Think about providing food labels for employees to use indicating the date an item went into the fridge; that way, it’s easy for others to determine if they can safely dump suspect sandwiches.

Keep It Clean

In general, there are a few best practices to lean on when it comes to food awareness:

  • Designated food zones. Depending on the types of office allergies that are most prevalent for your employees, you might consider limiting food consumption to the break room or other specific areas, as well as encouraging your employees to dispose of food in waste receptacles in that same space. Since some food allergens can be airborne, the waste receptacles should have lids.
  • Education. As you adjust rules about office food, explain the reasons for the changes and educate your staff about allergies in general. For privacy reasons, however, identifying the people who suffer from allergies is a no-no; leave that disclosure up to the individuals.

Providing food for your workforce every so often is certainly a nice endeavor, but you need to do it with everyone’s needs in mind. Build specific, accommodating precautions into your routines; they aren’t difficult to introduce and will boost awareness of proper cleanliness habits.

Mary Parsons is retired from a 30-year career in the insurance industry. She worked in the claims department of a major insurance carrier as a claims adjuster, manager and a member of a catastrophe team. Since her retirement, she has developed a career as a freelance writer. As an insurance professional, she has been a contributor to several insurance websites.