essential oil

An employee with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) experiences respiratory distress and headaches when exposed to certain fragrances. A coworker with generalized anxiety disorder uses essential oils to manage stress. How should the employer respond when the two employees’ accommodation needs result in conflict?

As a starting point, employers should note that one employee’s need for accommodation does not supersede another’s. If both employees are covered by Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the employer has an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to each individual, absent undue hardship. When one employee’s accommodation interferes with another’s, the employer may need to work with each party to identify solutions that will balance the needs of everyone involved.

Let’s take a look at the scenario above. How might the employer accommodate these employees when their needs seem to be in direct conflict? Reducing or eliminating in-person contact is often beneficial. This could mean creating separate paths of travel or ensuring that the two employees are not seated near one another. Allow communication via phone calls or email whenever possible. Providing a flexible schedule or telework option to one of the employees could also prove helpful. The employee with MCS may be willing to wear a mask in situations where direct contact must occur. Ensuring proper ventilation and installing HEPA filters and air purifiers could help to improve the air quality in the workspace.

Another option could involve creating designated areas of the workplace that will remain free of fragrances or irritants. This may allow the employee with MCS to work in a safe environment, while giving the employee with anxiety the ability to use her essential oils from a distance. The employer could also consider allowing the employee with anxiety to bring in a cotton ball or pad that has been dabbed with the essential oil. The pad could be kept in a sealed bag or container to avoid triggering symptoms in the coworker with MCS.  When possible, the employee could take a break to smell the fragrance as needed in a safe location.

Balancing the needs of employees with conflicting accommodations can be tricky, but it is often possible to find a solution that will benefit everyone. When in doubt, JAN consultants are always available to provide individualized assistance and technical guidance!