Accommodating Employees with Fragrance Sensitivities

Published September 29, 2021

An estimated 32.2 percent of the population experiences negative health effects from exposure to scented products. While perfumes and colognes are obvious culprits, fragrances can be found in everyday items such as air fresheners, scented candles, laundry detergents, toiletries, cosmetics, pesticides, and more. A single fragrance is usually composed of dozens of chemical compounds, and since manufacturers are not required to list every ingredient in a product, finding products that are actually fragrance-free can be a challenge.

People who are sensitive to fragrances may experience a range of symptoms upon exposure, including headaches, nausea, congestion, and difficulty breathing. Employees with fragrance sensitivities often have difficulty navigating the workplace, and employers can take several steps to accommodate them.

Reasonable accommodations

In McBride v. City of Detroit, a court ruled that a fragrance allergy could be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), the most recent amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Susan McBride, who suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), issued a complaint when a coworker for the City of Detroit wore perfume. The coworker did not stop wearing the fragrance, so McBride went to the HR department. The city refused to accommodate her, telling McBride that her coworker had a constitutional right to wear perfume and that her allergy was not her employer’s responsibility. The court disagreed, however, and found that her MCS constituted a disability because it interfered with the major life activity of breathing. McBride was awarded $100,000, and Detroit adopted a fragrance-free policy in its city offices.

People with allergies to scented products may be protected under the ADA if exposure to fragrances interferes with one or more major life activities. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations under Title I of the ADA provided that the accommodation requests do not cause undue hardship. In McBride’s case, the City of Detroit was in violation of the ADA because it denied her request without attempting to find a reasonable accommodation.

“As a best practice, employers should seek to accommodate an employee who has a fragrance sensitivity regardless of whether the symptoms rise to the level of a disability, as defined by the ADA,” said Esther Lander, an attorney with Akin Gump in Washington, D.C. Fragrance-free policies can also benefit people with asthma and autism spectrum disorders, who are more likely to be sensitive to scents than the general public.

Challenges to fragrance-free policies

Adopting a totally fragrance-free policy may not be reasonable for some employers, since enforcement largely relies on voluntary compliance from other employees. There may be pushback from employees who wish to continue using scented products.

“Even if an employer can get an agreement from employees in a particular area to agree to be scent-free, the employee with a fragrance sensitivity might still be exposed in other ways—because of employees from other departments or members of the public who visit their area,” said Patricia Perez, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego. “It is often easiest to implement changes that are completely under the employer’s control, such as shutting off automatic scent dispensers, and to talk with co-workers to craft a solution that is feasible and that everyone buys into.”

What employers can do

The Job Accommodation Network identifies three major options for dealing with fragrance sensitivities:

  1. Remove the offending fragrance(s) by instituting a workplace policy. In addition to adopting a total ban on fragrances, workplaces can create scent-free areas and use unscented cleaning products.
  1. Remove the employee from the place the fragrances are located. Employees can be allowed to work from home as an accommodation to prevent exposure to fragrances and/or to phone in for meetings where exposure is likely.
  1. Reduce the affected employee’s exposure to the fragrances. This can involve moving the employee’s work location to a private office with its own ventilation and allowing the individual to wear a mask or respirator.

Reasonable accommodations should be tailored to the individual’s needs.

Creating a list of fragrance-free alternatives to scented products can help ensure compliance with workplace policies. Items with Safer Choice’s fragrance-free labels are verified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be free of chemicals that mask or impart a scent.

The pandemic has changed the game

As remote work has become increasingly common due to the coronavirus pandemic, more workplaces will be equipped to offer telework accommodations to people with fragrance sensitivities.

Many COVID-19 “long-haulers” are developing fragrance sensitivities and allergies, so more people are likely to need these accommodations. Employers can get ahead of the game and take a page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Lung Association, both of which are fragrance-free workplaces. The American Lung Association also has a sample fragrance-free policy available.

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