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Scents and sensibility Add to ...

A no-scent policy went into effect in 2007. It reads: "Due to scent allergies in some staff members, please refrain from using scented body products when you are in the office. Given the prevalence of this type of allergy in the general population, it is prudent to refrain from using strongly scented products when representing the Mission outside of the office as well."

Co-workers who once wore fragrances have no problems complying.

Overall, "people are happy with the policy," Ms. Chase says "Being open and candid about my allergy has helped people put a face on the issue," she says.

Roberta Bradley works from home in Edmonton. She has to: The scents from any employees wearing fragrances make her "start to feel like I've had way too much to drink and get sick and unable to focus on things. It's just horrible."

Four years ago, Ms. Bradley was working as a computer programmer in the Calgary office of Alberta Education, the provincial government's education ministry, when she realized she had a problem. Several co-workers wore strong fragrances and, within minutes of starting work each day, she started to feel the effects. It took six months of visits to several doctors before she was diagnosed with a sensitivity to the perfume, cologne and fragrance in hair-care products used by co-workers. "I went to my boss and said, 'I can't work in this building. Either you have to let me work from home or you have to let me go.' "

For the past three years, she's been home-based, during which she also became vice-president of the non-profit Environmental Health Association of Alberta.

In that role, she meets many people who suffer even worse reactions to workplace scents and continue to struggle through their office jobs each day.

Her organization is now lobbying for all workplaces in the province to become scent-free and she admits it hasn't been easy. Her own employer did not institute a scent-free policy. "It's a matter of perception, the same way it was a few years ago with smoking. Many employers and employees still feel that a person who wants to wear perfume has the right to do so," she says.

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WHAT'S THAT SMELL?

2.4

Percentage of Canadian population that has physical symptoms when exposed to chemicals in the air.

15

Percentage of population estimated to have some kind of breathing problem affected by chemicals in scented products.

17

Percentage of Canadians who suffer from migraine headaches, which can be triggered by scents.

$247.1-million

Value of imported perfumes sold in Canada in 2008.

$2.48-billion

U.S. sales of men's and women's fragrances in 2009, down 10 per cent from 2008.

4,000

Number of different chemicals that may be used in the making of fragrances.

80

Percentage of chemical ingredients in scented products that have never been tested for their toxicity in humans.

Sources: Nova Scotia Allergy and Environmental Health Association, Canadian Lung Association, Statistics Canada; The NPD Group Inc.

SETTING LIMITS

Here are tips for setting up a scent-free policy from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

Organize: Form a committee, including employees, unions and management.

Start from the top: Get management commitment for action.

Get input: Conduct a survey of all employees asking about concerns and suggestions for limits on scents.

Explain the reasons: In writing and discussions, managers should lay out that the policy is being adopted for health reasons and not just because of dislike of some fragrances.

Make it universal: A policy should apply to visitors as well.

Have open debate: Listen to employee concerns and discuss actions they will have to take to make the policy effective.

Inform everyone: Distribute the resulting policy and provide an interim period before it takes effect, to give employees time to adjust their habits.

Post reminders: Notices should include public signs and website messages.

BEING SENSITIVE

If you choose to wear scents, less is more, says Toronto-based etiquette coach Louise Armstrong. Her tips:

Keep it subtle: If someone tells you that you're wearing too much fragrance, you are. Our ability to smell our own scents is diminished even while they might be screaming out to those around us.

Apply it in private: Like all aspects of human personal grooming, perfume application shouldn't be a spectator sport.

Use the two-foot rule: Your signature scent shouldn't waft beyond the confines of your desk. If someone says from across the room, "Hey, isn't that Escape?" you've overdone it.

Don't in close quarters: A scent will be distracting in meetings, interviews, training or travelling. Refrain from reapplying: One spritz in the morning should be sufficient.

The weekly Web poll

Survey says...

Does your employer restrict perfumes or fragrances in your workplace?

60 Percentage who said no

40 Percentage who said yes

Source: Globe and Mail online poll; 7,696 respondents

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