Even after a few minutes in an enclosed space with very strong scents, Sweta Regmi gets the start of a crippling migraine. It can be perfumes, cleaning products or fabric softeners.
She is one of an estimated 16 per cent of the Canadian population sensitive to environmental triggers such as scents, 5 per cent of whom suffer severe symptoms such as headaches, sore throat and sneezing.
As offices return to in-person work, people with scent-related allergies are crossing their fingers that colleagues and supervisors remember avoiding strong smells can be an issue.
“Be cautious,” says Ms. Regmi, a career coach and founder of Sudbury, Ont.-based Teachndo career consultancy. “Evaluate yourself. Do you really need to put that strong [scent] on? Some people love it… but it comes at a cost for other people.”
Several human rights cases across Canada have established an employer’s obligation to address scent sensitivities in the workplace, and scent-free policies have become increasingly the norm over the past decade.
Yet it still doesn’t seem to be taken seriously as an inclusion and disability issue, Ms. Regmi says.
She now works largely virtually with clients across the country, but in the past, has been forced to have awkward conversations with supervisors and colleagues about her scent allergies.
“If I’m sitting there in a closed room for a couple of minutes and it’s really strong, I get the aura. I know I’m going to get [a migraine] … It all depends on how strong the smell is,” she says. “It’s still so hard for me to talk to people when they’re wearing so much… I did bring it up to the upper management and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, I feel the same.’”
Jenna Reynolds, director of programs and services at Asthma Canada, says it’s important for employers to understand that scent sensitivity, or environmental allergies as they’re also known, aren’t a dislike of certain scents.
Some scented products “can cause serious health issues for some people,” she says.
Symptoms can range from feeling lightheaded or suffering a headache to dizziness, coughing or even difficulty breathing. For people with asthma, scents and fragrances can be a trigger, meaning they cause worsening asthma symptoms or even an asthma attack, “which is a major medical event,” she says.
An estimated 3.8 million people in Canada suffer from the respiratory disease, about 850,000 of them children under the age of 14, according to data provided by Asthma Canada. It notes that severe asthma affects roughly 150,000 to 250,000 Canadians.
Studies have found that about 70 per cent of people with asthma suffer symptoms upon exposure to perfumes.
Unfortunately, there are fragrances in everything from soap to fabric softener, including hair products, deodorant, mouthwash, lotion and hand sanitizer.
“Recognizing that sensitivities to fragrance, scents and chemicals exist and can cause detrimental effects to health not only creates awareness but promotes a safer environment for people who are affected,” Ms. Reynolds says.
Numerous studies over the past decade suggest the prevalence of scent sensitivities is on the rise.
The Canadian Lung Association notes that a typical fragrance can contain between 100 and 350 ingredients, and the problem is not the smell, per se, but the chemicals that produce the smell. Even products that contain natural plant extracts can cause allergic reactions.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety encourages employers to be proactive about providing a scent-free workplace.
“A scent-free workplace can help contribute to the overall wellness and wellbeing of everyone in the organization,” says Riane Marrs, an occupational health and safety specialist at the centre.
“To accommodate everyone, employers can proactively implement a scent-free policy and limit scented products in the workplace.”
While no statistics are readily available on the number of workplaces that have implemented such policies, under federal and provincial human rights legislation, employers are required to accommodate disabilities, Ms. Marrs points out. And she says some commissions have identified environmental sensitivities directly as a disability.
As with any workplace health and safety issue, she says workers with scent allergies should be proactive in bringing their concerns to managers and leaders.
Supervisors and employers implementing or renewing post-pandemic scent-free policies should assess the workplace for potential problems, which can arise from not only perfumes and lotions but also cleaning products, soap, or a host of other common culprits. She advises that they can look for unscented substitutes but must still check ingredient lists because some additives can mask the telltale scent of known allergens.
As with the success of any workplace policy, leadership support and open and clear communication with all staff are important, Ms. Marrs says.
“The goal of a scent-free workplace policy is to make sure that everyone understands the health concerns related to scent and that everyone’s cooperation is vital for the success of the policy. It’s a combined effort of everyone in the workplace,” she says.