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ADA: Perfume leads to expensive disability settlement

by on June 9, 2010 · 15 Comments POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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What would you do if an employee told you a co-worker’s perfume was making her sick?

It might be tempting to ignore the complaint as whining or exaggeration, but that course of action could get you in trouble.

Witness the lawsuit against Detroit city government by a planning department employee whose allergies were allegedly inflamed by air freshener spray and a co-worker’s perfume.

The co-worker had already agreed to stop spraying the deodorizer in the office, but kept wearing the perfume. Now the city has agreed to pay $100,000 to make the employee’s lawsuit, filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, go away.

Check out "ADA Accommodations: Supervisors and the Interactive Process" for FREE and arm your team with the knowledge they need to protect worker rights and avoid legal trouble.

Can an allergy be disabling?
So is an allergic reaction to smelly perfume really a disability?

It may seem like a stretch, but as this case shows, it may very well be. For ADA purposes, the EEOC defines disabilities as impairments that “substantially limit major life activities such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, and working” (emphasis added). So if the allergies are severe enough to keep the worker from doing his or her job — as was alleged in this case — it probably qualifies as a disability.

And in that case, asking another worker not to wear her perfume in the office does look a pretty reasonable accommodation.

It’s easy for manager to make a bad call in a situation like this. When people think of disabilities, they usually think of something like paraplegia or blindness. But under the ADA, the word has a very specific meaning — and it’s incumbent on managers to know it.

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  • Jsadler

    I understand the law and the direction our society has taken, but in this situation why should the co-worker have to give up wearing her choosen perfume? The reason: she doesn’t happen to fall into a protected category. BUT what if that employee is a minority and the person complaining of the disability is accused of doing so because of racial discrimination? Must the employer then bar every person in the workplace from wearing any perfume or cologne? Probably. And what about soaps, bath washes, hairspray, laundry detergent, someone who smokes on a break and smells of cigarettes? This decision opens an pandora’s box of problems.

    • sensitive2cents

      Some fragrance use is okay–when you can detect fragrance when you are close enough to whisper to someone; if it is bothersome you can move away. If someone has overdone it you can’t always get out of the area and away from the offender.

      There are folks who ‘over use’ fragrances. Have you ever entered an elevator and smelled the cologne of someone lingering in the air? Then you later learn they were in the elevator 30 minutes earlier….that is a problem for someone with cologne sensitivity or allergy or asthma [or all of three]. The fragrance user’s nose longer detects their favorite scent so they douse themselves more and more until they can smell it. Problem is, if you’re allergic or sensitive to the blend they use it could cause you cough uncontrollably when you inhale it–you can’t work much less breathe normally. This is when over use is a severe problem.

      I’ve worked in places where the moment a particular person enters the office, their over used scent enters the ventilation system and spreads it throughout the office–causing me to cough and wheeze. Then I use my inhaler so that I can breathe–I have to use it twice as once never works. This is the only time I have to use my inhaler–when someone has overused cologne or fabric softener. I am also allergic to cigarette smoke; not the smell wafting from a smoker’s clothes. I am lucky on that front.

      I know it is hard for someone who has never experienced breathing difficulty. Think of it as having a severe cold all the time and how difficult it is to breathe–that’s how it is for me all the time. It’s simple–don’t wear cologne.

      • Marta

        I have an allergy to perfumes, cigarettes, some adhesives, and latex. 

        I took my complaint to the HR department over 3 years ago and to date the company will not institute a Fragrance Free workplace. I have brought notes from the doctor stating that I should not be exposed to perfumes or fragrances to no effect.

        There is no “right” to wear perfume. To do this when you know that a person has severe asthma should be a criminal offense.  I consider it to be an attack on my person.

        In addition to having breathing problems and skin rashes, my eyes swell up and stay red all the time.  My blood oxygen levels were starting to be affected before I was moved into this room.  I am in a separate office now which helps, but I still have to walk into the building, ride an elevator and go to the bathroom. This exposes me again and again to people wearing perfume.

        The thing that gets me is I know there are others in the building with the same problem.
        It is a certainty that I will have to hire an attorney and go to the ADA to have anything done.  And I work for an insurance company!
         
         

    • Sheryl

      I have a perfume allergy and no one should be allowed to wear it in a office setting.  It causes migraines, it sets off asthma, and asthma like reactions.  Until you have a reaction to perfume, you have no ideal how sick it can make someone. The policy should apply to EVERYONE in the office.  In response to your question  “why should the co-worker have to give up wearing her chosen perfume?”  the answer is because it made someone sick.   It has nothing to do with over use or how light the smell is. No one should be made so sick that they can not perform their job, because someone is wearing perfume.   

    • Anonymous

      My boyfriend has a severe perfume allergy and his co-worker was told of it.  Instead of wearing less perfume or staying away from him – she instead wears even more and intentionally walks past his desk several times a day.   It gives him major headaches and he ends up having to leave the office.  It puts his job in jeopardy when he is constantly having to leave.   Not to mention that he has undergone many expensive medical tests in an effort to treat his condition.    If people would just be considerate when someone around them has an allergy – these extremes wouldn’t be necessary.

    • Catherinep

      Why is it so important for ANYONE to wear any perfume to work?  We don’t get close enough to smell soap, washes, etc.  If you had the allergy, you would know the difference.  Why would you want to interfere with someone’s breathing and health?  It does open a pandora’s box because perfumes are used in so many products.  But the cloud that comes with perfume use is definitely a different animal, we don’t walk up an sniff people, this cloud follows them around.  It can cause severe health problems and it’s the WORKPLACE!!  At the least the choice of scents can offend, at the worst it can cause life threatening asthma.  Do YOU want to take that responsibility, Jsadler?

  • Jsadler

    I understand the law and the direction our society has taken, but in this situation why should the co-worker have to give up wearing her choosen perfume? The reason: she doesn’t happen to fall into a protected category. BUT what if that employee is a minority and the person complaining of the disability is accused of doing so because of racial discrimination? Must the employer then bar every person in the workplace from wearing any perfume or cologne? Probably. And what about soaps, bath washes, hairspray, laundry detergent, someone who smokes on a break and smells of cigarettes? This decision opens an pandora’s box of problems.

    • sensitive2cents

      Some fragrance use is okay–when you can detect fragrance when you are close enough to whisper to someone; if it is bothersome you can move away. If someone has overdone it you can’t always get out of the area and away from the offender.

      There are folks who ‘over use’ fragrances. Have you ever entered an elevator and smelled the cologne of someone lingering in the air? Then you later learn they were in the elevator 30 minutes earlier….that is a problem for someone with cologne sensitivity or allergy or asthma [or all of three]. The fragrance user’s nose longer detects their favorite scent so they douse themselves more and more until they can smell it. Problem is, if you’re allergic or sensitive to the blend they use it could cause you cough uncontrollably when you inhale it–you can’t work much less breathe normally. This is when over use is a severe problem.

      I’ve worked in places where the moment a particular person enters the office, their over used scent enters the ventilation system and spreads it throughout the office–causing me to cough and wheeze. Then I use my inhaler so that I can breathe–I have to use it twice as once never works. This is the only time I have to use my inhaler–when someone has overused cologne or fabric softener. I am also allergic to cigarette smoke; not the smell wafting from a smoker’s clothes. I am lucky on that front.

      I know it is hard for someone who has never experienced breathing difficulty. Think of it as having a severe cold all the time and how difficult it is to breathe–that’s how it is for me all the time. It’s simple–don’t wear cologne.

    • Sheryl

      I have a perfume allergy and no one should be allowed to wear it in a office setting.  It causes migraines, it sets off asthma, and asthma like reactions.  Until you have a reaction to perfume, you have no ideal how sick it can make someone. The policy should apply to EVERYONE in the office.  In response to your question  “why should the co-worker have to give up wearing her chosen perfume?”  the answer is because it made someone sick.   It has nothing to do with over use or how light the smell is. No one should be made so sick that they can not perform their job, because someone is wearing perfume.   

    • Anonymous

      My boyfriend has a severe perfume allergy and his co-worker was told of it.  Instead of wearing less perfume or staying away from him – she instead wears even more and intentionally walks past his desk several times a day.   It gives him major headaches and he ends up having to leave the office.  It puts his job in jeopardy when he is constantly having to leave.   Not to mention that he has undergone many expensive medical tests in an effort to treat his condition.    If people would just be considerate when someone around them has an allergy – these extremes wouldn’t be necessary.

    • Catherinep

      Why is it so important for ANYONE to wear any perfume to work?  We don’t get close enough to smell soap, washes, etc.  If you had the allergy, you would know the difference.  Why would you want to interfere with someone’s breathing and health?  It does open a pandora’s box because perfumes are used in so many products.  But the cloud that comes with perfume use is definitely a different animal, we don’t walk up an sniff people, this cloud follows them around.  It can cause severe health problems and it’s the WORKPLACE!!  At the least the choice of scents can offend, at the worst it can cause life threatening asthma.  Do YOU want to take that responsibility, Jsadler?

  • Queenbee174

    I am one of those that cannot take the smell of other peoples frangacne. I have found myself in a bad place when I tell someone that their colonge is making me sick. Some will stop wearing and some will pour it on, this has cause me jobs and socializing with other diffcult.

  • Queenbee174

    I am one of those that cannot take the smell of other peoples frangacne. I have found myself in a bad place when I tell someone that their colonge is making me sick. Some will stop wearing and some will pour it on, this has cause me jobs and socializing with other diffcult.

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