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Accommodating fragrance sensitivities in the workplace

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against an employer for its failure to accommodate an employee with fragrance sensitivities.   The lawsuit in North Carolina alleges the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In its complaint, the EEOC claims that the employee’s supervisor ignored an employee’s multiple requests to telecommute as a means to avoid fragrances in the workplace which worsened her asthma and COPD.   The EEOC argues that the employer had a responsibility to individually assess the requested accommodation before refusing it.  If this case sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

In 2016, a court ruled that fragrance sensitivity is a disability under ADA because, in that case, it compromised the major life activity of breathing (McBride v. the City of Detroit).  Furthermore, the court ruled that the employer should have first engaged in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation before denying the accommodation request outright.  The takeaway message is clear.

The use of fragrance in products is on the rise and, not surprisingly, so are a growing number of requests for accommodating it.  Employers must be ready to respond and understanding when to initiate the interactive process and consider accommodation options is key to a successful outcome.

Fragrance sensitivity is best described as either an irritant or allergic reaction to a chemical in a product or may also be referred to as chemical sensitivity.  Common allergic reactions to exposure may include headaches or migraines, worsening of respiratory issues such as asthma or COPD, and skin irritations such as contact dermatitis or hives.  Repeated exposure over time may trigger or intensify these reactions or symptoms.

A first step for employers is recognizing that fragrance sensitivities and symptoms vary by individual and an accommodation must be tailored to that employee.  Start by consulting with the employee to identify a reasonable accommodation.  This critical step begins the interactive process.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers three primary options to consider as accommodations:

  • Remove the offending fragrance when possible.  For example, discontinuing the use of air fresheners and using unscented cleaning products.  Educating employees about fragrance sensitivities and asking for cooperation to voluntarily refrain from fragrance use.  Giving consideration to adopting a fragrance free work environment or fragrance free work zones.
  • Remove the employee from the area where the fragrances are located.  For example, a different workspace, private office or telecommuting.
  • Reduce the employee’s exposure to the fragrances to an acceptable level. For example, a private office with its own ventilation and minimum exposure to others.

Other accommodation ideas:

  • Maintain good indoor air quality
  • Use only unscented cleaning products and soaps
  • Provide scent-free meeting rooms and restrooms
  • Modify an employee’s workstation location, as needed, and modify the work schedule
  • Allow for fresh air breaks
  • Provide an air purification system designed specifically for the irritant in question
  • Modify or create a fragrance-free work place policy
  • Have a policy to allow telecommuting or home office work to help an employee avoid the problem fragrance

Employers must be aware of any employee fragrance sensitivities and be prepared to take action if a problem arises. If you have questions about how to deal with this situation in your workplace, reach out to your BCN Services specialist for help.