Successful Accommodations for Fragrance Sensitivities in the Workplace

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Todd Meier

While your choice in perfume or fabric softener may not seem like a serious decision, it can cause a person with fragrance sensitivity to have some unfortunate health issues. A fragrance sensitivity is an allergic reaction or irritation to chemicals in certain products1 — a topic I introduced in one of my first posts for the Workplace Possibilities blog. Check it out to learn more about fragrance sensitivity symptoms and potential modifications.

As a vocational case manager, I’ve had the opportunity to work with employees to help accommodate these health issues. While we understand that back pain can be alleviated with chairs and adjustable desks and impaired eyesight can be improved with certain computer programs or lights, how do you resolve issues with a smell? The following two success stories will help illustrate just that.

Rerouting Airflow

When I assisted an employee in our records area who had fragrance allergies, I looked at where she does most of her work and where she experiences the most symptoms. We discovered that every time a particular outside contractor came into the records area, this employee’s symptoms would escalate.

When we brought in the building manager, he looked at the intake vent in the ceiling and identified that one of the outtake vents was located directly above this employee’s desk. He suggested that the intake above the main entrance into the records area be switched to an outtake, and the outtake above the employee’s desk be diverted to another area. This would prevent the fragrant air from directly circulating through her workspace.

In addition, a higher partition was installed to control the air movement by her desk, which meant the scent was no longer directed into her area from people entering the department at the main front door. After these accommodations were made, the employee reported better air quality.

Purifying the Air

An employee who worked in a historic building with poor air circulation had been hypersensitive to fragrances since she was a child. This sensitivity increased with age, and she found herself sneezing, wheezing and dealing with watery eyes from the stagnant scents in the air around her cube. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pinpoint one particular scent as being the culprit.

But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a solution. The assessment that evaluated her work area and determined when and where she experienced the symptoms was just the beginning. This assessment also allowed us to see that if we provided an air purifier next to her desk — designed to mitigate fragrances in her immediate work area — she experienced a significant reduction in her symptoms and was able to spend her workdays in the same workstation.

In summary, there are many options that can be considered for accommodations when fragrance is an issue. Check out the Job Accommodation Network for a list of modifications.1

Proper assessment is necessary to pinpoint the triggers in the work environment. Reviewing the employee’s medical history with their treating specialist, interviewing the employee to find out more about the environments where they encounter symptoms in their home and in public, and things they may have done to mitigate the symptoms will help find the right accommodations for his or her unique situation.


1 Job Accommodation website. Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity. Published March 13, 2013. Accessed June 8, 2015.