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Does Your Company Need a Fragrance Policy?

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Marjory Pilley•updated: 6/8/2011

Many employers turn their heads in the other direction when it comes to the problem of fragrance in the workplace. Yet, one in five Americans are sensitive to fragrances and encounter serious illness upon inhaling a co-worker's perfume. A fragrance policy will address the issue head-on.

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    The Effects

    Perfume Perfumes with strong odor, scented deodorants, lotions, sprays, colognes, aftershaves, air fresheners, and even scented candles may offend co-workers. Most fragrances consist of carcinogens and solvents to which many people develop a sensitivity or allergy. Inhalation causes asthma, migraines, skin rashes, eczema, hives, nausea, dizziness, breathing problems, runny noses, wheezing, coughing, and sore throats. Severe cases cause illness, reduce testosterone in men, impair reproductive health, and lead to "brain fog" or mental confusion.

    Many employers take this issue lightly and are oblivious to the serious implications of the issue. Issues related to offensive fragrances have led to many lawsuits and huge settlements!

    • In Robinson v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (2007), an employee sued the company stating that strong perfumes worn by co-workers caused her to develop cold-like symptoms, headaches, fatigue, stiffness, breathlessness, and sore throats. She claimed compensation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but the court disallowed the plea on the grounds that the plaintiff's condition did not render her substantially limited in performing any major life activity.
    • In Doris Sexton v. Cumberland Manor Nursing Home (2005), an employee claimed damages because perfume sprayed by a co-worker left her permanently disabled and unable to work. A New Jersey court rejected the plea citing that the reaction did not arise out of employment. An appeals court, however, held the employer liable since breathing contamination poses a risk at work. Companies have to make special accommodations, such as special seating arrangements, for people suffering from such allergies.
    • In Susan McBride v. City of Detroit (2007), an employee claimed that perfumes and other grooming products used by co-workers caused breathing difficulties, and the city council violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing her with a reasonable accommodation. The City settled with McBride for $100,000 and the case did not go to trial. The City then adopted a policy for a scent-free workplace that covers all scent-based products including candles, air fresheners, and even magazine samples.

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    How to Cope

    Many employees consider regulation of their perfume habits an infringement of their civil liberties and an intrusion into their private lives. In addition, employees who notice strong perfumes and point it out in good faith may offend the other person.

    Ways of addressing the problem of fragrance in the workplace include giving strong hints, opening the windows to provide air circulation, and discussing the matter at staff meetings and other occasions. The best approach, however, is to institute a fragrance policy that lends clarity to the issue and makes it easier for people to ask others to tone it down.

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    The Policy

    A fragrance policy pre-empts most issues related to strong odors and provides the company with strong grounds to take action against those who violate the policy. Without a policy, the employee may challenge any punitive action as a violation of their civil liberties.

    Many public and private organizations have fragrance policies that restrict or regulate the use of substances emitting strong odors. Among government agencies, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Portland Police Department, and the City of Detroit have taken the lead on this issue. The policy at the CDC, for instance, bans the use and application of scented products such as perfume, cologne, air fresheners, deodorants, lotions, magazines, candles, and cleaning products in the work area, but permits scent-free versions of the same products.

    A good policy regulates the type and nature of perfumes that employees can use at work. It may, for instance, declare an odorless work environment and ban employees from wearing any perfumes, aftershaves, colognes, or any other scented products, and/or prohibit them from carrying clothing, magazines, or personal items having detectable fragrances. A comprehensive prohibition also covers scented gifts, flowers, candles and other items. The policy should also specify the punishment for non-compliance. Options include asking the employee to wash off the scent, change their clothing, or return home and cover the absence with vacation days. Failure to comply with the rule invites disciplinary procedures, just as failure to comply with other rules would. Counseling is a recommended first step and termination as an extreme-case last resort.

    A good policy extends the prohibition to suppliers and sub-contractors. The contracts executed with such channel partners should specify that the company would deny entry to representatives wearing strong fragrances. The tricky issue, however, is with visitors and customers. No business can afford to turn away customers just because they happen to wear a strong perfume. The only option is to display prominent messages at entry points that read something like “We strive to ensure the comfort and safety of staff and visitors by encouraging a smoke free and fragrance free environment" and then ensure that staff in direct contact with customers do not have an allergy or sensitivity.

    The criticisms against such policies are that it violates civil liberties and inappropriately infringes on a person’s private habits. Individuals with chemical sensitivities can react strongly to offensive odors, and as such, employers are within their rights to insist on a fragrance-free work space to ensure a comfortable and safe working environment for all. Conversely, employers do not have to provide reasonable accommodation just because someone's perfume, aftershave, or the air freshener bothers another employee. The requirement for reasonable accommodation applies only when the odor cause severe hardship that renders the employee incapable of work.

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    References

    1. Hosper, Fred. "Co-worker’s perfume made her sick: Is company liable?." Retrieved from: http://www.safetynewsalert.com/co-workers-perfume-made-her-sick-is-company-liable/ on June 04, 2011.
    2. Tracie DeFreitas Saab. "Accommodation and Compliance Series:Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity." Retrieved from: http://askjan.org/media/fragrance.html on June 04, 2011.
    3. "Is a Perfume-Free Workplace Legal?" Retrieved from: http://labor-employment-law.lawyers.com/americans-with-disabilities-act/Is-a-Perfume-Free-Workplace-Legal.html on June 04, 2011.
    4. The Environment Illness Resource. "Turning Tides: Managing Fragrances in the Workplace." Retrieved from http://www.ei-resource.org/columns/multiple-chemical-sensitivity/turning-tides:-managing-fragrances-in-the-workplace/ on June 04, 2011.

    Image Credit: freedigitalphotos.net/Ambro