Strong cologne impacts a co-worker

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Q:  I was just hired by a very cool company.  I am thrilled to be working here.  There is one problem.  The man who sits close to my cube seems to use a heavy dose of irritating cologne every morning.  Unfortunately, this scent is a problem for me.  I seem to be getting headaches and watery eyes in the morning, when the odor is very strong.  I try to walk in the other direction when I leave my cube, but it is becoming awkward since I think he believes I am avoiding him.  How do I address this?  There are a few colleagues that have mentioned it, but they seem to be able to tolerate it.

A:  Fragrance sensitivity issues are a more commonly discussed topic within our workplaces, especially with the trend toward more open work environments.  Employees who have allergies, asthma or other respiratory disorders often struggle with this issue, since it can impact an employee’s health.

Many employers have adopted a ban on fragrances in the workplace.  The American Lung Association has a sample Fragrance-Free policy on their website (http://action.lung.org/site/DocServer/fragrance-free-workplace.pdf).  Many employers draw a parallel between fragrances and second-hand smoke.  Workplace air quality is a concern for many employers.  Employees can experience wheezing, chest tightening, asthma-like symptoms, hives, sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, headaches and nausea.  Employers can use this policy as a starting point or as a template for their own 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 employers have banned plug-in air fresheners, candles or aerosol sprays.

Ask your employer if they have considered issuing a fragrance-free policy.  I expect that we will see more employees asking employers to reduce fragrances in the workplace.  Health care environments, in particular, are at the forefront of this movement.  If you step into many physician’s offices now, there is often a sign about fragrance sensitivities.

It is difficult to ask another coworker to change their habits, like their use of cologne, perfume 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 chemcialsensitivefoundation.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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