What Can I Do About Excessive Fragrances at Work?

Question: I work in a pharmaceutical company that produces medications. I have an overly sensitive system in regards to smells and scents. I have severe allergies to many things and require an EpiPen to be carried at all times.

I am not bothered by light, subtle smells and perfumes. However I AM bothered by the smokers who come inside and “bathe” in Bath and Body Works sprays to mask the scent of smoke (we are “supposed” to be a smoke free facility however that doesn’t seem to affect our owner/HR/employees).

We also have another employee who constantly sprays loads of Lysol to cover up the smell of another employee’s food because “it makes me hungry and I am trying to lose weight”. So much so that I can literally taste the perfume and the Lysol.

I have to have nasal and sinus surgery that is caused from years of allergies and nose bleeding episodes due to allergies. Due to that I need to be in an environment that is not going to cause irritation (sneezing, running nose, etc.) so as to undo everything that the surgery is going to fix.

I am able to return to work the following day with no limitations other than to avoid excessive irritants. My HR thinks this is a joke. I put my concerns in an email a week ago and she responded saying “she would see what she could do” by talking to my boss. However, the individuals who are causing the excessive spraying aren’t even in my department.

I don’t want to miss work without pay because they won’t tone it down. Total recovery time is 12-16 weeks. No one has that kind of time-off from work, just to accommodate others who need to cover up smoking.

Are there any ways I can go about requesting that our work place be a respectable fragrance level place? Please advise me how to handle this because it seems that they think it is unreasonable to ask others to change something.

Response:

There are many websites and other resources that discuss ways employers and employees can work together to develop a fragrance policy. Your HR person must be very out-of-touch, if she doesn’t realize the potential for a lawsuit on your behalf. If you have to be out of work, after asking for accommodation, you may be in a position to take civil action and recover damages in addition to requiring changes. I’m not suggesting that as your first option, but keep it in mind.

https://www.laborlawcenter.com/education-center/new-ada-guidelines-for-fragrance-sensitivity/ This is a good article about the issue.

http://www.chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org/fragrance-free-workplaces.html This has a long list of policies and resources.

www.shrm.org is another great resource, specifically for HR managers. Have her search for Fragrances and odors.

All of those links, plus many other sites, can let your HR person know this is not just a foible of yours—it is a workplace health issue.

If you look at our archives, you will see many posts about fragrances. But, we also remind people that the matter is best approached in a reasoned, courteous way, rather than a belligerent one. It is true that people should know better than to reek of fragrance or to spray fragrance around the room. However, usually they are not aware of how strong the fragrance is–and since they don’t get a headaches or swollen sinuses, they don’t realize the problems they are causing for others.

Thus, the most important part of dealing with the issue is for HR to educate everyone (and themselves) about the affects of chemicals of all kinds. The truth is that even if someone doesn’t notice ill-affects from using a strong fragrance repeatedly, their bodies are trying to protect their sinuses, throats and eyes from it repeatedly and it can cause problems they don’t connect to the fragrances.

A workplace does not have to be completely fragrance-free to be limited-fragrance. But, the limitations and acceptable fragrances should be made clear. For example, hand lotions should be fragrance-free. No perfumes, colognes, fragranced powders or fragranced antiperspirant. No room spray, plug-ins or potpourris. But, fragranced tissues are usually mild, as are the chemical fragrances on office supplies, reasonable applications of cleaning solutions and reduced amounts of furniture polish.

You can start your project by getting a note from your doctor that references your allergies and says you should avoid being in an environment that has irritating fragrances. He may be able to list specific types of fragrances for you to avoid

Then, send an email through your organizational chain to HR. Your manager should be involved with anything that affects your work and he should be copied on most emails to HR, unless you’re making a complaint that comes under a protected status (like sexual harassment).

In your email include links, attach your doctor’s letter, and be firm that the current level of fragrance isn’t acceptable. Ask a friend to read your email draft and get some input about it, if you’re not sure of the wording.

As part of the email say what you will be doing to help mitigate the chemical and fragrance problems until a permanent policy can be developed. Among the things many people have found effective:

1. Put one or more fans in your work space, to move air away from you and back into the work area.

2. Close doors if that will isolate odors.

3. Open windows and doors, if that will help ventilate better.

4. Wear a lower-face-mask to reduce pollutants that get in your nose.

5. Ask HR to send a note to employees saying that while they are working on a policy, all employees should refrain from fragrances and odors that create health and well-being issues for others. (You may find you are not the only one who is unhappy with the situation.)

6. If you feel confident enough to do it, talk to coworkers about your sinus condition and explain why you are asking for HR assistance. HR won’t be able to talk about your medical issues and you do not have to.

7. Be prepared for a little or a lot of anger, frustration and accusations that you are being overly sensitive. Few will say it to your face, but you can bet some will think it. Just stick with your insistence on a better workplace for everyone. In fact, that is a good approach to take: You are carrying the banner and championing the cause for everyone, now and in the future.

An office with which I am very familiar, went through this in about 2006. You would have thought the employees were being told they would be beaten every day. Some people threatened to quit when they were told they could no longer use well-known, highly-fragranced anti-bacterial gels. The woman involved just pleasantly kept saying she was speaking for many people who didn’t feel comfortable about expressing their own personal problems with fragrances.

Now it is in 2019 and one woman who reeked of perfume, doesn’t. The guy who wore cologne, doesn’t. The woman who had a fragrance diffuser, doesn’t. Life has gone on and no one is suffering from the absence of fragrance. Your office can be the same way.

The main thing it will take from you at first, is to insist that it isn’t a unique request and to push HR to be responsive to a problem that most other HR groups dealt with a long time ago. Work with them and with your manager to not only help you deal with your issue, but to make the workplace better for everyone.

Please let us know how the situation works out for you–what was successful and what was not. Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors