What's That Smell?! When Workplaces Try Fragrance Bans Is your colleague's perfume too strong? Did the cleaning crew just come by? Some say fragrances are chemical irritants that should be banned from the office. But doing so isn't so easy.

What's That Smell?! When Workplaces Try Fragrance Bans

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Let's talk now about perfume and cologne in the workplace. It can be pleasing or irritating, depending on the fragrance. But for some, fragrance can cause health problems, which is why there's a growing push to have fragrances declared chemical irritants that should be banned from the workplace. Although, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, doing that is not so easy.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: As a girl, Julie Luettgen hid in her room to escape her mother's Estee Lauder perfume. As an adult, she finds scents inescapable.

JULIE LUETTGEN: Everywhere I go, theaters, I've been at restaurants, and it's like, oh, my God, do you smell that? Like, it's terrible.

NOGUCHI: Luettgen, a realtor in Milwaukee, says her nose keeps tabs on co-workers as they come and go.

LUETTGEN: I can tell who has been in there just by the smell.

NOGUCHI: This isn't a party trick. For her, fragrances can trigger debilitating migraines. To avoid it, she has clients drive in separate cars. She removes scented plug-ins from homes, and she plans carefully before heading into the office.

LUETTGEN: I will text co-workers and just say, hey, if you're going to be in today, you know, I've got a headache or I'm not feeling well. Could you please not wear cologne? If my boss is going to clean the office, he'll let me know in advance, and I won't go into the office that day.

NOGUCHI: There is a medical condition called multiple chemical sensitivity, but it occupies a gray legal and medical area. It's not clear how many suffer from it, though the Society for Human Resource Management says fragrance policies are among the top five inquiries it gets from its members. And it's not always clear what an employer is required to do. Scott Pollins is an employment attorney representing a Pennsylvania woman who recently settled a case against her former employer.

SCOTT POLLINS: It can be difficult to figure out what is reasonable and what's not reasonable.

NOGUCHI: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if an employee has a diagnosed medical condition, such as asthma or an allergy triggered by a fragrance, the employer must make accommodations. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it's not clear how far an employer must go to accommodate. George Boue says employers should think about fragrance-free policies as a way to avoid lost productivity. Boue thinks about this issue as an indoor air quality expert and the HR director for a commercial real estate firm. He also has a sensitivity to fragrances himself.

GEORGE BOUE: You know, fragrance is very much the same as noise, if you will, in a work environment.

NOGUCHI: It's especially a concern given the openness of workspaces these days.

BOUE: Today's work environment is more to share spaces.

NOGUCHI: Boue says fragrance-free policies yield benefits for building owners. They can earn credits toward LEED environmental design certification. But even where a workplace already bans fragrances, it's hard to police. How far do you go in telling people what products they can and cannot use? Anna Eidt teaches at a high school in Toronto, which has adopted what it calls a scented products awareness program in its public schools.

ANNA EIDT: You know, it's a hard sell, especially with teens.

NOGUCHI: Eidt suffers frequent migraines brought on by perfumes, shampoos and virtually any other smells. She uses a special air filter and opens windows in her classroom. The school also allowed her to remain in one classroom so she doesn't have to walk the halls. More recently, she's been posting signs advertising the school's fragrance policy.

EIDT: Actually, just yesterday, I saw one had been maliciously ripped down and left on the floor, (laughter) so there's definitely pushback.

NOGUCHI: When it comes to fragrance-free policies, it seems many people have grievances to air. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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