Around 5,000 different fragrances permeate our personal care products. What smells clean and fresh to one person is a harbinger of an allergy attack for someone with fragrance sensitivity, which can result in sneezing, headaches, skin reactions, even difficulty breathing. Antihistamines can help, but the best treatment is reducing exposure. The question is, how far does your employer have to go to accommodate your condition?
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Fragrance sensitivity hit the news recently in the case of Brady v. United Refrigeration. Christine Brady claims that her former employer discriminated against her because of her sensitivity to chemicals, perfumes, and lotions.
The case is proceeding to trial, but its existence highlights an issue that many workers experience. An initial NIH study, and a subsequent study by the University of West Georgia, indicated that as many as 30 percent of Americans suffer from scent sensitivity. As many as 45 million workers are affected by chemical sensitivity, according to MCS America.
You may have already experienced it yourself: that noxious aroma of perfume or cologne that permeates the office. It may become so bad that you can’t stop sneezing, or you just can’t concentrate on your work – all because the smell is overpowering.
The increasing prevalence of issues related to scents and chemical allergies has caused some companies to take a more proactive approach, particularly now that allergies to fragrance or multiple chemical sensitivities may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Yes, there is some ambiguity about whether a “sensitivity” will rise to the level of a disability, under the ADA. That’s partly because the issue may still seem rather minor. Jonathan Mook, an attorney with DiMuroGinsberg, clarifies that individuals with medical conditions that make them fragrance- or irritant-sensitive may now be covered by the ADA as having an actual disability and entitled to reasonable accommodation.
With all that in mind, then, what can you do to survive those noxious smells in the office?
1. Be friendly.
Yes, the first step is usually a direct approach. Have you tried talking to the person who is pouring a gallon of scent on themselves every morning? Even if they aren’t a personal friend, many fellow employees are willing to make adjustments to their fragrance selection, or make do without. At the very least, they might lighten up while they’re at work.
2. Research office policy.
If your initial approach doesn’t work, find out if there is a policy about fragrance or scent products. Some companies have already put a clause in their employee handbook, and that could make life much easier for you. The policy often relates to colognes, after-shave lotions, perfumes, deodorants, body/face lotions, hair sprays or similar products. But, some human resource departments have extended the policy to any fragrance in the office, including cleaning solutions, air fresheners, and other scented products.
3. Ask for intervention.
Even without an official policy, you can still approach your manager or HR representative to ask for help. Your manager can often offer simple solutions that will dramatically improve your situation, whether it’s by moving you to a different location in the office, letting you wear a mask, or even arranging for the fragrance-issue to be corrected. (They might even send out a company-wide email, banning the use of fragrance).
4. See if you can have a flexible schedule.
Depending on your job function, and the flexibility of your office environment, you may be able to re-orient your work space: work from home, move to a different office, or complete your tasks on a different schedule. Your boss may even be open to allowing you to Skype in to meetings. And, there may be other options available to you that are specific to your company and working relationship with your manager.
When you demonstrate that you want to work, and that you’re willing to be flexible – to make it work for everyone – your employer will hopefully respond in a positive way.
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