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

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

"Everywhere I go — theaters, I've been at restaurants — and it's like, 'Oh my God, do you smell that?' It's terrible," she says.

Luettgen, a realtor in Milwaukee, says her nose keeps tabs on coworkers as they come and go. "I can tell who's been in there just by the smell," she says.

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.

"I will text coworkers and just say, 'Hey, if you're going to be in today, I've got a headache or I'm feeling ill. 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," she says.

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 members. But 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. "It can be difficult to figure out what's reasonable and what's not reasonable," Pollins says.

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 Boué says employers should think about fragrance-free policies as a way to avoid lost productivity. Boué 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.

"Fragrance is very much the same as noise, if you will, in a work environment," Boué says.

It's especially a concern given the openness of workspaces these days. "Today's work environment is more to share spaces," he says.

Boué says fragrance-free policies yield benefits for building owners. They can earn credits toward Leadership in Energy and 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.

"You know, it's a hard sell, especially with teens," Eidt says.

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.

"Actually, just yesterday I saw one had been maliciously ripped down and left on the floor, so there's definitely push back," she says.

When it comes to fragrance-free policies, it seems many people have grievances to air.

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