How To Deal With Fragrance Sensitivity In The Workplace

Fragrance sensitivity in the workplace is nothing new. But the problem has grown along with the number of scented products on the market. Although it may be hard to address, no one should suffer fragrance allergies in silence. In this article you’ll learn how to deal with fragrance sensitivity in the workplace with tact and professionalism.

What is Fragrance Sensitivity?

Fragrance sensitivity is an allergic reaction to a scent. 

An allergic reaction is what happens when the body treats a normally-harmless substance as if it’s a threat.

Symptoms

Allergic reactions to fragrances can take many forms. 

Direct contact with a scented product can lead to the following skin issues:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Rashes
  • Blistering
  • Hives
  • Burning Sensation

Breathing in a scented product may cause the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Runny Nose
  • Itchy, Watering Eyes
  • Brain Fog
woman sneezing from fragrance sensitivity in the workplace

Fragrance sensitivity is a big risk for people with asthma or other respiratory issues. Extreme allergic reactions can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Constricted Airways
  • Facial Swelling

These reactions can indicate a life-threatening emergency. If they occur, seek medical attention right away.

Why Fragrance Sensitivity is a Growing Problem

It used to be the only highly-scented products most of us ran into were perfumes and colognes. That’s no longer the case.

Today, fragrances are used in nearly every type of personal care item including:

  • Soaps
  • Lotions
  • Body Washes
  • Shaving Creams
  • Deodorants
  • Hair Care Products
  • Laundry Detergents
  • Fabric Softeners

But the problem doesn’t stop at personal care items. Consider these changes to household products:

  • In addition to spray air fresheners, there are now plug-in diffusers that fill the air with ongoing fragrance.
  • Household sprays with proven toxicity are used to “refresh” fabrics such as clothing, upholstery, and drapery with odor-covering scents. 
  • Candles are more fragrant than ever, and warming pots with “candle melts” offer on-going aroma without the worry of an open flame.
  • Household cleaners, often toxic in their own right, have strong “fresh scents” as part of their chemical makeup. 
  • Even trash bags and toilet paper are now sold in scented forms.

Given this surge of highly-scented products, it’s no wonder fragrance sensitivity is one of the most common symptoms of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity). 

Nor is it surprising that fragrance sensitivity in the workplace is a growing problem.

The ADA and Fragrance Sensitivity

The good news is that employment laws are starting to take notice. 

In 2016, a federal court ruled in a case involving an employee with MCS. The employee sued after her employer refused to ban fragrances in the workplace that were making her sick. This was the result:

The court ruled that an allergy to scents can be a disability under ADAAA, the most recent amendment to ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under this law enforced by the EEOC, when an employee has severe symptoms as a result of being exposed to odors or scents, that can be a disability. Such symptoms would include asthma, breathing difficulties, or an itchy, inflamed rash called contact dermatitis. Once an employee has an allergy to a chemical, the symptoms are likely to be triggered by smaller and smaller amounts of exposure.

The court found that [the plaintiff’s] MCS was a disability that interfered with the major life activity of breathing.

Labor Law Center

MCS is not considered a disabling disease in its own right. Still, many MCS symptoms, such as breathing issues due to fragrance allergies, hinder basic life activities. Therefore, such issues may fall under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) protection.

It is important to note, however, that not every case of workplace fragrance allergy is an ADA issue. This is because the degree of the problem matters.

For example, asthma attacks and daily headaches are far more serious than getting the sniffles.

It is up to the employee to show the negative impact on life function and job duties when seeking help under the ADA.

How to Deal with Fragrance Sensitivity in the Workplace

Despite ADA support, fragrance sensitivity is still a tricky issue to deal with at work.

It is vital to address the issue, but it is also important to protect working relationships while doing so.

The following guidelines can be used to address workplace fragrance sensitivity with tact and professionalism.

Discuss the Issue Directly

Most people, unless they also struggle with it, are unaware of the problems fragrance sensitivity can cause. But, once made aware, most people don’t want to cause discomfort to their co-workers.

Given this, a friendly, private chat may be all it takes for a co-worker to stop using air fresheners, perfumes, and/or scented laundry soap. 

For best results, the talk should be discreet, calm, and factual. Stay focused on the problem and do not make personal attacks.

The goal is to educate first, then ask for help removing the symptom-triggering fragrance from the work environment. 

two women having a conversation

It’s not always easy to talk with co-workers, especially those that aren’t very friendly. But it’s the best first step towards a solution. Why?

Because telling co-workers about the problem makes them aware of it.

Then it gives them the chance to help solve the problem.

Finally, it paves the way for taking more formal steps if they don’t help.

Speak with an Immediate Supervisor

What if talking directly with a co-worker is too uncomfortable or not easy to arrange?

What if having a nice one-to-one chat doesn’t change anything?

Then the next step is to speak to an immediate supervisor.

women talking in office setting

Again, the best outcome will come from a calm, factual conversation. 

First, describe the problem and how it negatively impacts work performance. Next, identify the cause(s) of the fragrance sensitivity as clearly as possible. Finally, ask for assistance in addressing the issue.

The Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org) offers helpful ideas for employers and supervisors dealing with fragrance sensitivity issues in the workplace. Go over these ideas with your supervisor to find those that will work best for your situation.

Talk to Someone Higher Up

If talking with an immediate supervisor does not work, the next step is to move up the company ladder.

In a large company, this may be the Human Resources Department. For a smaller business, this may mean speaking to the owner.

As always, aim for a calm, professional tone. Remember that the goal is not to point fingers or damage work relationships. The goal is to create a work environment that is healthy for everyone.

A talk with higher-level management can, and probably should, refer to ADA support for taking fragrance sensitivity in the workplace seriously.

And it may be helpful to share that the Job Accommodation Network offers guidelines for drafting a formal fragrance policy should the company wish to adopt one.

Recognize Employer Limitations

No matter how helpful a company wants to be, there may be limits on what can be done to accommodate fragrance sensitivity. It’s important to keep this in mind when seeking a soluton.

For example, it is not reasonable to expect a perfume manufacturer to eliminate airborne scents in the workplace.

Also, an employer will have limited control over workplaces with open access to the public. A company may ban fragrance use among its employees, but it cannot ban it among the general public entering its place of business.

blurred image of people walking in a building

The simple fact is, some companies will never be a good fit for someone with MCS or fragrance allergies.

Be Flexible in Finding a Solution

Finally, it’s good to remain flexible in finding solutions to workplace fragrance issues. 

Give fans, air purifiers, and masks a try if asked. 

Be open to physically moving to a different office or workstation. 

Consider a flexible schedule or work-from-home options if they are offered.

The Last Resort for Dealing with Fragrance Sensitivity in the Workplace

Unfortunately not every employer will deal with fragrance sensitivity issues the way they should. If asking for help within the company fails, then it’s time to seek outside help.

The U.S. Department of Justice website offers a guide for filing an ADA Complaint.

Although filing a formal complaint is never an easy step, it is an important one.

Every person who stands up for the right to work in a healthy environment makes a difference.

And hopefully, one day, no one will have to deal with fragrance sensitivity issues in the workplace again.

smiling woman at computer where fragrance sensitivity in the workplace is not an issue

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