A co-worker wearing too much perfume

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Q:  Many in my office are slowly returning to the workplace vs. working 100% remotely.  One of my co-workers, who is very new to the company, seems to be very fond of perfume.  Very fond!  I feel like I have a heightened sensitivity to fragrances.  It is worse in the morning, when she first arrives.  She is my co-worker, so I don’t have any “power” over her.  I swear it gives me headaches and watery eyes. I want to keep a mask on in the office, even though I am not required to wear one. 

A: Fragrance sensitivity issues are now a more commonly discussed topic within our workplaces.  Those will allergies, asthma or other respiratory disorders are often especially concerned, as fragrances can be detrimental to their condition.  Those who suffer from migraines can also be affected.

Many employers have adopted a ban on fragrances in the workplace.  When we think of fragrances in the workplace, most of us think of perfume.  Perfume may be one culprit, but aftershave, laundry detergents, candles, air fresheners, cleaning products, lotions and hair products also may be problematic.  The American Lung Association has a sample Fragrance-Free policy on their website (http://action.lung.org/site/DocServer/fragrance-free-workplace.pdf).  Employers can use this policy as a starting point or as a template for their own customized policy.  It is a bit more difficult to ask visitors to comply with such a policy but most will comply if they are aware of the policy in advance.

Many employees wear colognes, perfumes and other scented products without ever intending to cause harm to another person.  However, these products can adversely affect another person’s health.

Ask your employer if they have considered issuing a fragrance-free policy.  Some health professionals have compared fragrance-free workplaces to that of smoke-free workplaces.  I expect that we will see more employees asking employers for workplaces which are fragrance free.  Health care environments, in particular, are at the forefront of this movement.

It is difficult to ask another coworker to change their habits, like their use of shampoo or body lotion.  However if they understand how the use of these fragrances impact others, this may help them appreciate your concerns.  You can also speak to your Human Resources department to ask your co-worker (and maybe even others) to limit their use of fragrances, air refreshers, etc. in the workplace. Additionally, some employers are asking their janitorial service to use fragrance-free products when cleaning offices.

For more information about chemical sensitivities, visit The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation at chemicalsensitivefoundation.org.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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