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Fragrance Sensitivity

Accommodation and Compliance: Fragrance Sensitivity

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About 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 when discussing fragrance sensitivity, fragrance is often added to a variety of daily use items including but not limited to toiletries, cosmetics, air fresheners, cleaning products, and pesticides. Ingredients used in fragrance are not required to be disclosed on labels, which can make it difficult to identify the ingredient or product that is responsible for the sensitivity. Regardless of what the specific allergen is or whether it has been identified, common reactions to exposure include headaches, respiratory problems, asthma, and skin irritations. 

There are two types of allergy symptoms due to fragrance sensitivity - respiratory or skin allergy symptoms. Symptoms of fragrance sensitivity can include headaches, nausea, and a skin allergy like contact dermatitis, which causes redness, itching, and burning. Watery, itching, burning, and red eyes; sneezing; runny nose; and congestion are also common. In some cases, individuals experience breathing difficulties, such as wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, or worsening of asthma symptoms. Frequency and level of sensitivity can differ from one individual to another and identifying the exact cause of the irritation or allergy can be difficult because of the complex chemical formulas in many everyday use products. 

The potential for exposure can be high as fragrances are added to of everyday products, and there has been an increase in the amount of time spent in indoor environments. Those with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory disorders may be more susceptible to the effects of fragranced products. The best way to prevent fragrance sensitivity is to remove, block, or avoid the offending substance. Discussing the fragrance sensitivity with people at work and at home also can also help to limit exposure to other people's fragrances.

Because there is no requirement for manufacturers to list all the ingredients in their products, finding a product that is truly fragrance free can be challenging. Even some products that are labeled as being "unscented" or "fragrance free" contain herbal ingredients or oils from botanicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE) program helps identify cleaning and other products that have been determined to be effective and safer for human health and the environment. These products carry the Dfe label and a list of all partners and products recognized under the DfE Safer Product Labeling Program

When dealing with fragrance sensitivity, there are really three main options to consider as accommodations:

1) Remove the offending fragrances.

When possible, an employer should try to remove the offending fragrance, especially if the fragrance is unique to the work environment, minimal, and/or the employer has more control over it. However, as mentioned earlier, under the ADA it is probably not reasonable for an employer to have and enforce 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.   
2) Remove the employee from the area where the fragrances are located.

When it is not possible to remove the offending fragrance, an employer may be able to move the employee away from the fragrance. This usually means working at home or in a private office with no exposure to coworkers, clients, or other members of the public. Regarding work at home, unless the employee wants to work at home, other options should be explored first to keep the employee in the workplace.

3) Reduce the employee's exposure to the fragrances.

If the offending fragrance cannot be removed and the employee cannot be moved completely away from the fragrance, it may be possible to reduce the employee's exposure to an acceptable level. This usually means a private office with its own ventilation and minimum exposure to others. It can also mean allowing the individual to wear a mask or respirator. Some individuals are able to wear masks/respirators while others are not or may not be comfortable wearing them. Employers should keep in mind that they cannot force an employee to use a mask/respirator.

Sample Policy Language:

The following are examples of fragrance-free workplace policy statements.

  • Anonymous City Law Enforcement Agency Policy: "To reasonably accommodate bureau employees who have written memoranda documenting chemical sensitivity to perfume, employees will wear no perfume or cologne during business hours when they are scheduled to be within the bureau during their shift. This policy will not affect those bureau employees who are in an off-site training class, on city business, or out of the office for an entire shift."
  • Anonymous Employer: "(Name of employer) strives to ensure the comfort and safety of staff and visitors by encouraging a smoke free and fragrance free environment."
  • Anonymous State Community Development Agency, Employee Administrative Bulletin: "Given that chemically sensitive individuals may react to different products with widely varying degrees of severity, it is very difficult to ensure a consistently comfortable and accommodating work environment under every conceivable set of circumstances. Even so, it is the general consensus of the Labor/Management Committee and the desire of the (company name) to minimize to the extent possible the barriers and difficulties experienced in the workplace by both employees and clients subject to chemical/fragrance sensitivities. The (company name) requests that all offices and spaces used by the staff and their visitors remain free of chemical-based scented products."
  • Anonymous Employer, Staff Memo from Executive Director: "I ask that we refrain from applying spray colognes, hairsprays, and or air fresheners in the office, as the use of such products may trigger allergic reactions and create health problems."
  • Anonymous Employer, Administrative Manual Policy, Subject: Employee Appearance: "Cologne, perfume, aftershave lotions, scented lotions, or body washes are not to be worn in the Medical Center."
  • State Protection and Advocacy Agency: "This is a fragrance free office. Thank you for not wearing any of the following: cologne, after shave lotion, perfume, perfumed hand lotion, fragranced hair products, and/or similar products. Our chemically-sensitive co-workers and clients thank you."
  • Anonymous Employer: "This is a fragrance free office. Please help us to accommodate our co-workers and clients who are chemically sensitive to fragrances and other scented products. Thank you for not wearing perfume, aftershave, scented hand lotion, fragranced hair products, and or similar products."
  • Anonymous Employer, Memo to All Staff: "You may have noticed the signs up on the front door and on the library doors stating that this is a fragrance-free office. Please cooperate with this request because there are several of us on staff and visitors to our office who are chemically sensitive to varying degrees. Our bodies have a hard time when we come into contact with a variety of chemicals and each episode takes its toll on our bodies. Please use only unscented products during work hours. This does not include deodorant or bath soap at this time."
  • U.S. Access Board: "Under this policy, the Board requests that all participants refrain from wearing perfume, cologne, and other fragrances, and use unscented personal care products in order to promote a fragrance-free environment. This request is included in notices and on displayed signage for the Board's meetings, hearings, and other public events. In addition, the Board will work with the operators of meeting sites to prevent the use of deodorizers and cleaning products immediately before the event in and around meeting locations."

Fragrance Sensitivity and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA does not contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Accommodating Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity

People with fragrance sensitivity may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with fragrance sensitivity will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What limitations is the employee experiencing?
  2. How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  3. What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  4. What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  5. Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  6. Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?

Accommodation Ideas:

Situations and Solutions:

The following situations and solutions are real-life examples of accommodations that were made by JAN customers. Because accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis, these examples may not be effective for every workplace but give you an idea about the types of accommodations that are possible.

Events Regarding Fragrance Sensitivity