The Fragrance-Free Workplace

Disability accommodation litigation as well as employee complaints have led many employers to develop scent-free workplace policies.  Is there a good way to go about adding such a policy and a bad way? Of course.

The bad way.  Be self-righteous about the iniquity of wearing smelly chemicals and the rights of employees to a fragrance-free workplace. Spring the policy on employees with no warning or discussion. Hang obnoxious accusatory unwelcoming signs around the workplace. (The online Canary Report has some excellent examples of this type of sign. Scroll down to “Signs”).

The good way. First: keep it short and simple.  No need for long explanations, accusations, medico-legal discussions, etc.  Second: get input from employees before enacting the policy and give them some lead time.  (This may sound silly – how hard is it to stop wearing perfume? – but some may have to change their deodorant or hairspray practices!)  For a discussion of a thorough fragrance policy adoption process, check out the Canadian Lung Association website and type in “scent-free.”  Third, if needed, put some clear but respectful signs around the office. 

So what’s a good fragrance policy look like? After reading a number of policies online, here is my contribution to the literature.  It’s an amalgam of two policies, one from the Society for Human Resource Management website, the other from a unit of Kaiser Permanente:

“Employees and visitors to our organization may have sensitivity and/or allergic reactions to various fragrant products.  Therefore, [Company Name] is a fragrance-free workplace. Personal products (fragrances, colognes, lotions, powders, deodorants, shaving and hair products, and other similar items) that are perceptible to others should not be worn by employees. Other fragrant products (scented candles, potpourri and similar items) are also not permitted in the workplace.

Any employee with a concern about scents or odors should contact his or her manager or the Human Resource Department.”

What are your thoughts or experiences with workplace fragrance policies?  ~Amy Stephson

8 responses to “The Fragrance-Free Workplace

  1. Aloha Amy,

    Thanks for the shout out to The Canary Report. Hopefully your readers will realize that contrary to your description, the signs we provide actually follow your guidance for “good signs.” I’m not sure how you interpreted the sign on the patient’s hospital door, which reads “Pardon me” and “Please,” as “bad.” One sign we link to is very close to the one you quoted as your perfect sign.

    By far the strongest indoor environmental quality policy is the one made by the US Centers for Disease Control: no fragrance or toxic chemicals allowed in their offices. It applies to the CDC offices nationwide, covering some 15,000 employees. It’s the model that other companies might want to use. The link to the policy is on the The Canary Report page you provided your readers.

    I think it’s super that you are sending people to The Canary Report, it’s a wealth of information about the health issues faced by people with toxic chemical sensitivity. I’d like your readers to know that our health issues have nothing to do with odors or our sense of smell; our illness is caused by exposure to the fumes or residues of certain toxic chemicals, most commonly VOCs, solvents and pesticides. Your compassion and understanding in support of our efforts to keep the air we breathe clean would be greatly appreciated.

    Aloha from Hawaii,
    Susie Collins

    • Workplace Insiders

      Thanks, Susie, for your comment. The Canary Report looks like a very useful resource for those with chemical sensitivities. From a human resources perspective, however, which must take into account that employees may have many different points of view, I still believe that the signs are somewhat offputting. ~Amy Stephson

  2. To be honest, just about any way you word it, people do not want to be told not to wear fragrance! Even when you tell people the ingredients are toxic and can make others ill, people are really attached to their products and their “rights” to use them. It’s fingers in ears and “la la la la la,” I can’t hear you.

    I’m not sure if you realize that the signs posted on my page were not done by hospital admin, they were done by an ill patient with chemical sensitivity who had discovered during a previous stay that the staff was not adhering to the hospital’s fragrance-free policy. I actually think the signs are pretty polite considering the circumstances; by the time someone with toxic chemical sensitivity becomes horribly ill from a nurse’s fragranced product, especially in a hospital with a fragrance-free policy, the words “pardon me” and “please” often escapes our vocabulary. The last thing we feel is “self righteous,”– what we feel is vulnerable, ill, and often helpless at securing clean air in an institutional setting.

    The qualifier in your suggested sign– “that are perceptible to others”– is quite good I think, and something that I will pass on to others who are working on fragrance-free policies.

  3. Fragrance is a migraine trigger for me. I have hemiplegic migraines. I can suffer a stroke at any time and the more I am exposed, the more likely that I will have a serious stroke or strokes. I have already experienced small strokes. I am only 54 and do not wish to loose my quality of life. I am also allergic to migraine medicine, so even without the stroke/ fragrance is still debilitating for me.
    Let me caution you on using this wording for policies : “Personal products (fragrances, colognes, lotions, powders, deodorants, shaving and hair products, and other similar items) that are perceptible to others should not be worn by employees.” That phrase “perceptible to others” is what makes people decide to try out all the fragrances they love on the person(s) with TCS/ and all those with the migraine trigger of fragrance. I might as well put you in the car with me and smoke everyday, forcing you to inhale it as you cannot leave, just to see if you actually get cancer from second-hand smoke. Do you see that it is utterly cruel that people are ok with killing me or disabling me for life – JUST because they like to wear fragrance?
    Fragrance free is just that – it is not acceptable to encourage people to wear it as long as no one says anything. I am a nice person and even though my life is potentially endangered by others, I hesitate to say anything to them. It is difficult because they do not understand the ramifications for myself and other.

    I applaud all organizations, employers, employees, leaders in the community and everyone else who is taking a stand to gain a fragrance FREE work space. Thank you!
    Shelly Bell

    • Workplace Insiders

      Ms. Bell — The word “perceptible” means that the fragrance can be perceived by others. If you can smell the fragrance, the policy has been violated. It would seem that this addresses your concern. ~Amy Stephson

  4. I work within a building that is city-owned/operated. We are an agency with offices within it, but have limited to no control over its operation. Those who do have engaged an individual through a program that assists those with challenges to have meaningful employment to do light cleaning. This person has been with us for years and presents no issues…except one….his deciding to wear a cologne so strong that the odor lingers long after he has left the space. I am scent sensitive, and get sporadic migraines made all the worse. If I should inadvertently bring a magazine home with a scent strip I have to get it out of my space and/or in a sealed bag.
    In any case, due to office politics, my supervisor is resisting any direct action with this situation to resolve it. It has been mentioned to her prior. One of the people who is in charge was once bothered and spoke to this individual, with short-term relief.
    I cannot afford to leave my job and have been here in double-digit years. But this increasingly challenging. While I have a door I can shut, I have no windows and can still smell it when this person enters the space. I do not want to hurt him by speaking directly to him, nor do I feel it is my place. I’ve already been told attempting to go to the person’s supervisor from the organization would cause serious other problems.
    I feel like everyone else has rights and accommodations, but because I am not using inhalers or vomiting visibly it’s just blown over. It makes me feel unwell, it makes my head ache. I do not want to pursue this from a legal stand point…but I am increasingly miserable.

  5. I am also frustrated, I also have scent allergies, and will get headaches when scents are too strong. I wonder if having an allergist come and talk to our co-workers, church members, etc. may help?

  6. Workplace Insiders

    Tracy: I would suggest going to whomever has the authority to enact a scent policy at your church or workplace and trying to get them to enact a policy. Your allergist perhaps can support that effort with a phone call or letter. You can also present a couple of articles about scent allergies. If you can get some fellow employees or church members to join your effort, all the better. Good luck. ~Amy Stephson

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