Is it time for you to flush your toilet water and swear off wearing scents at work? It isn't just that some people don't like the smells of the perfumes, colognes, body sprays and grooming products used by co-workers. Chemicals in the fragrances can trigger reactions ranging from headaches to heart palpitations in people who are sensitive to them, making it difficult for them to work effectively. While there are no Canadian laws regulating the wearing of fragrances in the workplace, a recent U.S. court ruling has put the issue back in the limelight. And a growing number of workplaces are voluntarily going scent-free. Should your workplace be next?
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.).
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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, Ont.
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.
Statistics Canada estimates that 2.4 per cent of the work force have chemical sensitivities that cause physical reactions, many of them serious enough to affect their ability at work, Ms. Bradshaw says.
At least 15 per cent of the population is estimated to have lesser reactions to fragrances, such as asthma and headaches, she adds, which also affects their ability to work.
Scent-free policies help that, she adds.
"Employers are swayed by the promise that going scent-free could raise productivity," Ms. Bradshaw says.
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