Bonnie Dewkett
Dec 28, 2015

Scents and Sensitivity: 5 Tips for Handling Scent Aversions in the Workplace

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Keeping your workspace clean requires a variety of products - and each one often comes with its own distinct fragrance. Between bleach-based bathroom cleaners, glass cleaners and “fresh scent” carpet cleaners, a sparkling clean office is likely to have some serious smells floating around. This can present a health hazard for workers who have fragrance sensitivities.

There are a number of conditions that make it difficult for someone to be exposed to fragrances and chemicals. Allergies, asthma and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including but not limited to dizziness, vomiting, respiratory distress, headaches and skin conditions. Any of these symptoms make it difficult, if not impossible, for the employee experiencing them to work efficiently.

In the extreme case where an employee’s fragrance sensitivity is severe enough to substantially limit his or her ability to perform their essential job functions, the employee may be deemed to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If so, an employer has a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee, if one exists, unless the accommodation would result in an undue hardship for the employer.

Here are five things to consider if you have fragrance-averse employees:

1) Start at the source

If you know there are people in your work environment who have scent or chemical sensitivities severe enough to be considered a disability (or who have a record of an impairment or are regarded as having an impairment related to fragrances and chemicals), engage them in a conversation to determine what limitations they are experiencing and what they need in order to successfully perform their job functions.

Understanding their requirements (which necessarily includes input from their treating physician) can help you provide reasonable accommodations to address their situation. If an employee’s fragrance sensitivity is not considered a disability, you can still address their issues and attempt to reduce the fragrances used in the work environment.

2) Read labels

Check labels of the cleaning products used in your work environment for anything with added fragrance. There are many names for added scents: parfum, perfume and fragrance are just a few. Beware also of words that relate to the particular odor of the item, such as “vanilla” or “eucalyptus.”

Keep in mind that “unscented” and “fragrance free” labels don’t necessarily mean that the product is without scent. It could mean that there are no chemical components in the cleaner—or even that something has been added to cover or mask another scent in the mixture. Natural, non-toxic or natural fragrance can all mean that there are scents present in the cleaner. Bottom line: read the ingredients list closely.

3) Choose natural products

To reduce the exposure of chemicals and fragrances in the worksite, choosing natural cleaning products is a great alternative. If you, as the employer, have control over the selection of products used to clean and maintain your work environment, choose natural cleaning products or ask your vendor to do so.

Products made of natural ingredients such as lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar still have odors, though they lack chemical components. The ingredients to make these cleaning solutions can be purchased in bulk along with your traditional cleaning supplies. Natural and scent-free cleaning supplies are usually more environmentally friendly as well.

4) Do your research

There are many sources you can use to research specific brands that are chemical and odor-free. Refer to watchdog organizations that have no affiliation with the brands they are testing and reviewing. The Environmental Working Group is one great resource for finding non-toxic products.

5) Ask for help

Ask your employees to refrain from wearing perfumes, scented body products or chemical-laden products in the workplace - but be sure not to impinge on their rights. Some employers are choosing to have a voluntary fragrance-free policy, educating employees about fragrance sensitivities and requesting employees to voluntarily refrain from wearing fragrances.

Under the ADA, it may not be reasonable for an employer to have a total no-fragrance policy because it is difficult - if not impossible - to enforce, especially if non-employees such as clients and volunteers come into the workplace. Employers who are considering implementing a fragrance-free policy should consult an appropriate legal professional. The American Lung Association has a sample fragrance-free policy to help you get started.

Going fragrance and chemical-free in your workplace won’t just benefit employees with sensitivities. It may also allow everyone to breathe a little easier by improving the overall quality of the air.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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