Scents and sensitivity in the workplace
by Michele Majul-Ibarra
Have you ever walked through the fragrance section of The Bay or any major department store in a mall? I am sure at one time or another you have experienced being stopped by a sales person coaxing you to either be sprayed on or to smell a sample scent. How did it make you feel? How did you react to the scent?
It is believed that in ancient times, the Egyptians were fragrance connoisseurs and they were one of the first civilizations to use perfume. They used it for both ceremonial and beauty purposes. The Egyptians believed that fragrance was the sweat of the sun god Ra. Archaeologists have also discovered many Egyptian recipes and formulas for developing perfume and the compositions were a complex mixture of natural materials such as scented oils. However, times have changed and now perfumes are mostly comprised of chemicals.
In the modern world, when we refer to fragrances, it can mean anything from smells or odours from cosmetics such as perfume, shampoo, hand lotion or even products such as air fresheners and cleaning solutions. In most workplaces, there are employees who want to smell good, however, there are also employees who are sensitive to scents. Those employees who like to wear perfume may not realize they are triggering allergic reactions in their fellow coworkers.
The issue of sensitivity to fragrance in the workplace is quite complex. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, however, to figure out that the chemical substances contained in these fragrances are not natural and can in fact have adverse effects on our health. Allergic and asthmatic patients, as well as those with other reactive conditions, report that certain odours, even in the smallest amounts, can trigger an attack. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the severity of symptoms can vary. While some may report a mild reaction, others can be incapacitated. As a result, these individuals may avoid going to public places or crowded areas.
These reactions are called environmental sensitivities and according to the Women’s College Hospital, “Environmental sensitivities (ES) describes a chronic condition whereby a person has symptoms when exposed to certain chemicals or other environmental agents at low levels tolerated by most people. The symptoms may range in severity from mild to debilitating. ES has also been called multiple chemical sensitivity, chemical intolerance, environmental hypersensitivity, environmental illness, toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, and idiopathic environmental intolerance.”
So why is this even an issue? Well, this is because scents can affect an employee’s well being. Also, there are human rights laws in Canada that protect environmental sensitivity on the grounds of disability. As a result, cases arising from scent sensitivity have recently been innovated in provinces like Ontario and other provincial jurisdictions.
In addition, at the federal level, the Canadian Human Rights Commission recognizes environmental sensitivity as a medical condition that is entitled to the protection of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
What does this all mean? It means, accommodation is required under the federal and provincial human rights Acts. From an employer’s perspective, such accommodation might include a request from a Manager or Supervisor for employees not to wear over powering fragrances, as well as allowing those with sensitivities to leave their workstation when experiencing symptoms or a reaction.
So the next time you grab that bottle of cologne or aftershave, as you get ready for work, be considerate of others who are suffering from environmental sensitivities. What smells good to you might be problematic for others. It’s not only employers who have a duty to accommodate, we all have a duty to accommodate in creating a safe working environment for everyone, and that includes contributing to a fragrance-free environment.
This article is intended for information purposes only. Consult the human rights commission in your province for any questions you may have regarding environmental sensitivities.
Michele Majul-Ibarra is an HR Professional. She graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Human Resource Management. She also holds the C.I.M. professional designation (Certified in Management). E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.