Gasping for air
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
Now I wouldn’t hesitate to speak up! Perfume can make breathing difficult. (The American Lung Association says 72 percent of asthma attacks are caused by perfume.) But you’re not the boss, so I think your caution is very wise.
In your case, you need 3rd party ammunition, so no one will take it personally and you won’t feel you are being overly demanding as an administrative assistant. You don’t want to offend the person(s) — but on the other hand you do want to breathe!
So, what 3rd party ammunition can you get?
1. Know what ‘fragrance sensitivity’ is:
“Fragrance sensitivity may be an actual allergy or a simple irritation. It can be difficult to diagnose which is occurring… Typical reactions to fragrances include breathing problems, asthma, and contact dermatitis (an itchy and inflamed skin rash). Once a person has developed fragrance irritation it is likely that the sensitivity will grow over time and with repeated exposure…” Source: JAN website
2. Get a doctor’s note
Getting a note from your doctor about your fragrance allergies is the perfect 3rd party ammunition. It takes the onus off you, and makes the issue ‘medical’. From what you’ve written below it seems a very straightforward solution.
“I am highly chemically sensitive and allergic. Things with these types of perfumes and ingredients in them cause my eyes to itch and water, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, my skin to get red and itch and even occasionally upset stomach. I do not tolerate it well physically at all! People who don’t have these problems don’t seem to understand how badly it can affect those of us who do.”
If you do go, make sure your doctor is knowledgeable about the issue — if he or she is not — find another!
3. Look into claiming fragrance sensitivity as a disability under the ADA
This is a serious step and one that you would not want to take unless absolutely necessary.
Some people with fragrance sensitivity will have a disability under the ADA and some will not. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has a pdf on the issue: Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor. It is written to help employers determine what accommodations might be necessary, and to comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
4. Do your research
Use Google to search for articles on the topic. What’s that smell? is a very good article, and it quotes from JAN as well. One shocking stat from it, “The American Lung Association says 72 percent of asthma attacks are caused by perfume.”
5. Know your rights
You are in an entry level position so I can understand you not wanting to push too hard. However you should know for yourself what your rights are. In addition to the JAN pdf, get the official department of labor guidelines for your state. See what your rights are under the law — it’s changing as more environmental issues come to the fore. Search for the most recent academic research too! Google Scholar is a great tool for that. (Some articles are limited or by pay access, but many are available to anyone for free.)
6. Go to HR and Educate your coworkers
Give an educational package about your condition to HR. Assemble educational information and your doctor’s note into a package and give it to HR and your Supervisors. When your coworkers understand it’s a serious health issue, some (if not all) will be more willing to forgo the perfume.
An employer has the right to decide what is reasonable when making accommodations for a fragrance sensitive employee. JAN suggests that companies incorporate the accommodation ideas below into their company policy. This is a step that HR would probably have to take. The JAN document also includes sample policy language for companies to share with staff.
- Maintain good indoor air quality
- Discontinue the use of fragranced products
- Modify workstation location
- Modify the work schedule
- Provide an air purification system
- Modify communication methods
- Modify or create a fragrance-free workplace policy
Good luck! I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Please let me know how things work out! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game
Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.
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