What’s That Smell? Fragrance-Free Policies in the Workplace

We’ve all been there: a coworker who seems to have bathed in a vat of cologne walks by your cubicle. All you can smell for the rest of the day is this person’s ‘scent.’ It can be nauseating and, for some people, it can even cause serious health issues.

With an estimated 45 million Americans affected by chemical sensitivity, fragrance-free policies are becoming more common in the workplace. These policies discourage people from wearing scented products.

The City of Portland, Oregon voluntarily adopted such a policy in February 2011 that made all city offices fragrance-free. The city also asks citizens that visit and use public spaces to be considerate of others by limiting their use of scented products.

One would think this has created an oasis for chemically-sensitive folks, right? Guess again.

Julee Reynolds vs. City of Portland (Case 3:13-cv-00792-SI)

An employee of the City of Portland filed a lawsuit against the City for not enforcing their fragrance-free policy. The Bureau of Maintenance employee suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), which is an:

“unusually severe sensitivity or allergy-like reaction to many different kinds of pollutants including solvents, VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), perfumes, petrol, diesel, smoke, ‘chemicals’ in general and often encompasses problems with regard to pollen, house dust mites, and pet fur & dander.”

For more than two years Ms. Reynolds suffered from numerous exposures to scents that triggered allergic reactions. After each exposure, Ms. Reynolds reported the incident to the City, but those reports were never responded to. One particular exposure lead to an anaphylactic reaction that required her to be hospitalized. Ms. Reynolds filed suit against the City, and she was awarded a settlement of $15,000 in June 2014.

Fragrance Freedom of Expression

Because employers cannot create a ‘bubble’ for their employees to work in, enforcing a fragrance-free policy can be a difficult task when realizing the large number of scent-producing items a person can find in the workplace. However, employers may have to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Reasonable accommodation as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice is “any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions.”

Several courts have pointed out that reasonable accommodations cannot violate the rights of other employees, such as eliminating their right to wear fragrances – and as we know, fragrances are in everything from soap to hair products, deodorant to toothpaste, mouthwash to laundry detergent.

Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Although many people can tolerate fragrances, for those with MCS, a whiff of cologne or other chemical scents can make for an uncomfortable experience. Sufferers of MCS can experience a variety of reactions:

  • burning, stinging eyes
  • wheezing, breathlessness nausea
  • extreme fatigue/lethargy
  • headache/migraine/vertigo/dizziness
  • poor memory & concentration
  • runny nose (rhinitis)
  • sore throat, cough
  • sinus problems
  • skin rashes and/or itching skin
  • sensitivity to light & noise
  • sleeping problems
  • digestive upset
  • muscle & joint pain
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