Some of the most difficult employee health conditions to address for employers are fragrance sensitivities. Let’s face it, people who don’t suffer from these conditions, or only mildly suffer, often think that those who complain are just workplace whiners. In fact, this condition, depending on its severity, can be a disability allowing for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
So, what should an employer do when approached by a worker who says they have scent allergies or fragrance sensitivities which are aggravated in the workplace? Well, the first step is to take the complaint seriously. Most court decisions against employers on this issue are situations where the employer either dismissed the complaint as not covered by the ADA, or predetermined that there was not that much they could do about it.
Take for instance the case of McBride v. City of Detroit from a couple of years ago. The plaintiff was a senior planner for the city. She reported to H.R. that she suffered from multiple chemical sensitivity and sought a reasonable accommodation. The city believed that it could not make the workplace fragrance free and refused to engage in the interactive process with her. She ultimately left her job and sued the city under the ADA. The court found that her fragrance sensitivities caused respiratory problems and therefore was a disability under the ADA because it interfered with the major life activity of breathing. She was ultimately awarded $100,000.
Secondly, it’s okay to ask the employee for some medical verification of scent allergy or sensitivity sources and suggestions on how to reasonably accommodate the employee. After all, it’s pretty impossible to rid a workplace of all scent, but if you can narrow down what is causing the reaction, then you can better determine whether a reasonable accommodation is available.
Thirdly, explore options for a scent free workplace. Some are simple, like buying an air purifier for the employee and asking the cleaning service to switch to scent free products. You can also ban scented candles and diffusers in the workplace.
Other measures are more complicated. It is impossible to prohibit co-workers from using scented products that linger on their clothes or bodies, or wearing perfume or after shave. Employers are not prohibited from asking, though. If it is scent from co-workers that irritates an employee’s condition, you can also relocate the “scented” employee to a different area where the scent is not so bothersome.
One outcome in the McBride case was that the City of Detroit implemented the following policy in their employee handbook:
Our goal is to be sensitive to employees with perfume and chemical sensitivities. Employees who are sensitive to perfumes and chemicals may suffer potentially serious health consequences. In order to accommodate employees who are medically sensitive to the chemicals in scented products, the City of Detroit requests that you refrain from wearing scented products, including but not limited to colognes, after-shave lotions, perfumes, deodorants, body/face lotions, hair sprays or similar products. The city of Detroit also asks you to refrain the use of scented candles, perfume samples from magazines, spray or solid air fresheners, room deodorizers, plug-in wall air fresheners, cleaning compounds or similar products. Our employees with medical chemical sensitivities thank you for your cooperation.