In a high-profile U.S. case last month, a federal court upheld an employee's right to a scent-free workplace.
Detroit city planner Susan McBride filed a lawsuit complaining that a co-worker's perfume made it challenging for her to breathe and do her job. The city initially fought it on the grounds there was no medical diagnosis of her condition and she was still able to do her job.
But the U.S. District Court sided with Ms. McBride. The city of Detroit was ordered to make three of its office buildings scent-free, and Ms. McBride was awarded $100,000 (U.S.).
So far in Canada, no one has gone to such legal lengths to force employers to ban fragrances. In fact, there are no Canadian laws regulating the issue of scent sensitivity in the workplace.
Nevertheless, employers have an obligation under all provincial health and safety codes to provide a safe workplace, and scents are increasingly being considered a health and safety issue, says Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist for the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton.
Environmental sensitivity is listed as a disability in Ontario's Human Rights Code, which means that employers have a duty to accommodate the needs of the environmentally sensitive in the workplace.
However the rule doesn't specifically address scent sensitivities as a disability, says Pascale Demers, spokesperson for the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The commission has only ever received two complaints from employees about scent sensitivity. Both were settled privately, and the commission has no information about what was decided, Ms. Demers says.
A growing number of companies are responding to employee requests and have set up policies that ask workers to voluntarily go scent-free, says Nancy Bradshaw, co-ordinator of the environmental health clinic of Women's College Hospital in Toronto.
Ms. Chappel estimates that up to a third of Canadian workplaces have some form of restriction on scents worn by employees. Precise figures are not available because companies are not required to report their policies.
Why not more?
"Because only some employees are sensitive to scents, and the causes and reactions are different to pin down, employers have tended to think of scent sensitivities as an issue that can be worked out with informal agreements among employees," Ms. Bradshaw says.
"But there is a growing awareness that more formal polices are needed because people may not complain, even though they have chemical sensitivities serious enough to affect their ability to put in a day's work," she says.
Over the past three years, she has given presentations at about 50 Ontario workplaces about the advantages of setting up scent-free policies; about half of them have taken action.
"Employers are swayed by the promise that going scent-free could raise productivity," Ms. Bradshaw says.
SNIFFING OUT THE PROBLEM
"Why some fragrances affect some people but not others remains a mystery," says Dr. Michael Joffres, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Scents contain chemicals that, even in low amounts, can trigger reactions in some sensitive individuals, he explains.
"Scent sensitivity is like an allergy. Over time, people exposed to the chemicals in fragrances become increasingly sensitized to them to the point that they can no longer tolerate any more exposure. This can trigger breathing problems, headaches, sneezing, nausea, disorientation and, in extreme cases, they can go into shock similar to the reaction those with a peanut allergy might have," Dr. Joffres says.
"We do not know exactly how these reactions are triggered and there is no commonly accepted medical diagnosis of environmental sensitivities," he adds.
"No matter what the explanation is, these people are falling through the cracks of the current medical system."
TWO EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCES
Jennifer Chase had just started a new job when she noticed something in the office was making her sick. "I regularly developed a dry, sore throat. I'd start to cough and couldn't stop. My eyes were watering and I'd get a debilitating headache. I had trouble seeing my computer because my vision was blurry and I couldn't concentrate on my work," recalls Ms. Chase, 27, a marketer for The Leprosy Mission Canada in Richmond Hill, Ont.
She quickly realized her reactions were due to co-workers who wore strong scents to work.
So she decided to ask her supervisor to set a scent-free office policy. Worried as a new employee she'd be taken the wrong way, "I said: It's not that I don't like their perfume or fragrance-wearers as people, it's because the scents make me sick. This is actually a health issue and it is affecting my work."
When a scent ban was discussed at the next staff meeting, she wasn't alone: Four of the office's 25 other employees said they were also having reactions to fragrances. .