When it comes to perfume, that woman in the next cube seems to follow the old maxim, “if a little is good, a lot is better.” The guy down the hall wears enough aftershave and cologne that you can smell him coming three doors down and track his progress through the building just by sniffing the air. Although personal products such as perfume, shampoos or scented deodorants can be annoying, they can also trigger reactions in people who are sensitive to certain odors or allergic to ingredients.
Chemical sensitivity is the term for people who have allergic reactions to scents or odors such as cosmetics, cleaners or other workplace chemicals. Strong perfumes, air fresheners and room deodorizers may cause reactions such as difficulty breathing, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing or a runny nose in a sensitive employee. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that organizations not use air fresheners or room deodorizers because they can cause irritation of the nose, eyes and throat.
Organizations may adopt fragrance-free workplace policies and enforce them as necessary, as long as they don’t discriminate between women’s perfume and men’s aftershave; each gender must abide by the rules. The employee who wants to wear a strong perfume does not have any legal rights and can actually be considered insubordinate if she refuses to comply with a company policy that forbids scented products. Fragrance-free policies can also include air fresheners, scented candles and other fragrances in the workplace.
Severe chemical sensitivity may actually be considered a disability, so many employers are responsive to complaints about overly strong smells. If a chemically sensitive employee files a formal complaint, the employer must make reasonable accommodations. These include actions such as moving the employee’s workstation to a well-ventilated area, designating certain workplace areas such as break rooms or conference rooms as fragrance-free or buying a room air purifier for the employee’s office. If the company ignores a worker’s complaints, it may even face a lawsuit.
How to Complain
If the perfume or aftershave next door is overwhelming your sensitive nose, start by tactfully asking your co-worker to be less lavish with the scented goodies. If that doesn’t work, review your company policies regarding fragrances in the workplace. Follow the policy if there is one -- make your complaint formal and make it to the right person -- and don’t just gripe about your coworker whenever you’re in the break room. Unless you are clearly chemically sensitive and willing to take legal action, however, you may not have any options beyond a complaint and a request to tone down the scent.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.