Scents and Sensitivity in the Workplace

Posted by Kim Cordingly on November 26, 2013 under Accommodations, Employers, Products / Technology, Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

By: Tracie DeFreitas, Lead Consultant

When we talk about making facilities accessible and useable as a type of accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), most people don’t necessarily think about invisible barriers that may be in the air. They may think about more obvious physical barriers like stairs leading to an entrance, narrow doorways, or inaccessible restrooms. However, for some people, irritants like fragrances, deodorizers, scented candles, and other chemicals in the air can be as much an access barrier as a missing ramp or inoperative elevator. People with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory disorders may be more susceptible to the effects of these irritants at levels that are much lower than what might cause problems for those in the general population.

In particular, exposure to fragranced products can make it difficult for some employees to function effectively at work. JAN Consultants talk to employers who are trying to accommodate 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, 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 or scent sensitivity can be a little complicated because accommodations sometimes impact others in the work environment. For example, some employers have implemented workplace policies or made requests that all employees refrain from wearing and using scented products in the workplace. While a 100% fragrance-free environment may not be reasonable, an employer may still take measures to reduce exposure to such irritants. It becomes an issue of fragrance-use awareness. As with any accommodation situation, it is up to the employer to determine what is reasonable with regard to the type of accommodation(s) that can be implemented. JAN offers a number of accommodation solutions that may help:

  • Reduce exposure to scented products by asking employees to be conscious of their choice of products (opt for non-scented) and to refrain from wearing fragrances and colognes to the workplace
  • Move the employee’s workstation away from co-workers who use heavily scented products, fragrances, etc.
  • Do not situate the employee’s workstation near areas of heavy foot traffic or congregation (i.e., break room, restroom, elevator area)
  • Provide an enclosed workspace
  • Provide an air cleaner of the right size to effectively clean the space (i.e., select a model sufficient for gaseous filtration) and make sure the HVAC system is working properly
  • Provide a desk fan
  • Allow a flexible work schedule so the employee who is sensitive can work when fewer people are in the building
  • Allow the employee to wear a mask (e.g., http://www.icanbreathe.com/favorite.htm)
  • Allow breaks to take medication or get fresh air
  • Allow telework
  • Implement and enforce a fragrance-free policy

For additional information regarding accommodation ideas for people who are sensitive to fragrances, see JAN’s publication Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity or contact JAN to speak with a consultant.

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