From the desk of Tracie DeFreitas, M.S., Program Leader, Director of Training, Services, and Outreach
Years ago, employers never would have imagined being asked to consider implementing a policy to ban fragrances from the workplace. However, with the multitude of chemicals the public is exposed to every day, it’s not surprising that we have arrived here. Think of it like the discovery of the impact of exposure to second-hand smoke in the late 80s, early 90s. The health effects of fragrance chemicals are quite similar and public awareness of the issue is growing with increased information sharing. How does this affect the workplace? It’s been estimated that indoor environmental air quality-related health issues, which can develop from exposure to chemicals and other irritants in the workplace, cost business in the range of $20-$70 billion annually due to lost productivity, decreased performance, and absences from illness (Women for a Healthy Environment). Recognizing fragrances and other commonly used products as contributing factors to poor air quality and making positive changes to improve workplace air quality can benefit all employees, as well as an employer’s bottom line.
Exposure to fragranced products can make it difficult to impossible for some employees to function effectively at work. JAN Consultants often discuss fragrance-related accommodation solutions and best practices with employers and employees who report fragrance sensitivity. Fragrance sensitivity is either an irritation or an allergic reaction to some chemical or combination of chemicals in a product. Although perfumes and colognes are generally what come to mind, fragrance is commonly added to a variety of daily use items like toiletries, cosmetics, air fresheners, scented candles, laundry soaps and softeners, and cleaning products. People with fragrance sensitivity often experience symptoms such as breathing difficulties (wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, or worsening of asthma symptoms); headaches; nausea; hives and other skin irritations; and limitations in memory and concentration.
Situations involving fragrance sensitivity can be a little complicated because accommodation solutions can sometimes affect others in the work environment. Certainly there are various accommodation solutions to consider, but one accommodation that is becoming more common in the workplace is the implementation of a fragrance policy or notice requesting that all employees refrain from wearing or using scented products in the workplace. While a 100% fragrance-free environment may not be considered reasonable under the ADA (due to the impracticality of enforcing such a policy), employers are not precluded from implementing fragrance policies, or sending out memos to make people aware of the concept of being courteous to fellow co-workers. Essentially, an employer can still take measures to reduce or eliminate exposure to known irritants – without having to establish a 100% fragrance-free environment. It becomes a matter of increasing fragrance-use awareness and informing the workforce about the impact of fragrance chemicals on health – their own and others’.
Developing, implementing, and enforcing a fragrance policy should be handled in much the same way as any other employment policy. It is suggested the term fragrance-free policy not be used, given that it is virtually impossible to create a 100% fragrance-free environment. A 100% fragrance-free environment may not be feasible, but steps can be taken to limit overall exposure to fragrances at work. Employers who have concerns about implementing a policy specifically about products worn into the work environment could begin by implementing a policy related to what is used IN the work environment. For example, banning the use of plug-ins, scented candles and aerosol sprays in the workplace but requesting that employees refrain from wearing scents INTO the workplace. It will be more feasible to enforce actual policies related to products used in the workplace. However, this might simply be the first step toward implementing an enforceable policy that bans wearing fragrances into the workplace and creates a healthier environment for everyone.
Employers who do wish to implement a fragrance policy, either as a workplace accommodation or a proactive step toward better indoor air, do not have to go to great lengths to research and develop policy language. Many employers in the United States, as well as internationally, have developed such policies and procedures and have made the information available to the public. This means you do not have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to determine what is reasonable for your organization to implement. Simply searching Google using the term “fragrance policy” will produce a number of credible examples. A good example of a generic fragrance policy template that JAN has identified is offered by the American Lung Association (ALA) – although the policy does use the term fragrance-free and we would suggest dropping “free” from the policy. See the following:
Workplace Fragrance Policy Examples (American Lung Association)
- [EMPLOYER] expects that all offices and spaces used by the staff and their visitors remain free of scented products.
- Personal care products such as cologne, perfume, aftershave lotions, scented lotions, fragranced hair products and/or similar products are not to be worn in the facilities owned and operated by [EMPLOYER] including company owned vehicles.
- Use of air fresheners and candles are prohibited from the facilities owned and operated by [EMPLOYER] including company owned vehicles.
- Use of cleaning products other than those purchased by the [EMPLOYER or BUILDING MANAGEMENT] are prohibited for cleaning personal workspaces.
Procedural information from ALA, shown below, offers ways to implement, inform people about, and enforce a policy:
- Employees will be informed of the [EMPLOYER] Fragrance-free Policy through signs posted throughout properties owned and operated by [EMPLOYER] including company-owned vehicles.
- Visitors will be informed of the [EMPLOYER] Fragrance-free Policy by their hosts, the meeting invite, email correspondences and signs posted throughout the properties owned and operated by [EMPLOYER].
- Sample email signature for guests: “This is a fragrance-free workplace. Thank you for not wearing any of the following during your visit: cologne, aftershave lotion, perfume, perfumed hand lotion, fragranced hair products, and/or similar products. Our chemically-sensitive co-workers and clients thank you.”
- Any violations of this policy will be handled through the standard disciplinary procedure.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a useful generic fragrance policy template as well (for members only link):
- Recognizing that employees and visitors to our offices may have sensitivity and/or allergic reactions to various fragrant products, [Company Name] is a fragrance-free workplace. Personal fragrant products (fragrances, colognes, lotions, powders and other similar products) that are perceptible to others should not be worn by employees. Other fragrant products (scented candles, potpourri and other similar items) are also not permitted in the workplace. Any employee with a concern about scents or odors should contact his or her manager or the Human Resource Department.
As with any accommodation situation, it is up to the employer to determine what is reasonable with regard to the type of accommodation(s) to implement. There may be many solutions to consider. Additional information can also be found by visiting the A-Z of Disabilities section at AskJAN.org, or by contacting a JAN Consultant.