Friday, July 6, 2007

Allergies And Phobias May Affect Your Workplace

A news article caught my eye today.
An office worker for the US city of Detroit is suing for her colleagues to be banned from wearing perfume which gives her such severe headaches, nausea and coughing fits that she must leave work.

Court documents showed Thursday that Susan McBride suffered so acutely from allergy to the chemicals in scents, lotions and sprays that she had to go home sick when a heavily perfumed co-worker shared her office at the city's historic districts department.

Her sensitivity is such that she avoids the detergent sections in shops and cannot sit near perfumed people in a movie theater or on the bus.

The co-worker refused to leave off the perfume, according to the complaint filed at the district court in Detroit, in the northern state of Michigan. McBride needed medical treatment and was off work for some time.

Now she is seeking a jury trial to make the city force fellow employees to come to work un-scented, citing disability discrimination laws. She is claiming unspecified damages for "pain, suffering, humiliation and outrage" suffered.

McBride and her manager have already asked the city authorities that employ her to enforce a "no scent policy as an accommodation to her disability, without success," the complaint said.
Ok - I can see people have legitimate allergies, as well as specific medical handicaps which employers must make provision for .. but in cases such as this one should we force the rest of the world to cater to one person's needs?

How fair is that?

This isn't like having to install a ramp or give the person with a disability special equipment. This is requiring that everyone else in the workplace give up something that they might like to do, namely wear perfume or cologne, and possibly deodorant or hairspray or a host of other hygiene products. Additionally, the workplace has all sorts of chemicals and scents.. How would that be eliminated?

Why don't they just transfer this woman to a different department?
Or have her wear a face mask? or have her work from home?

Surely this employer can make some adjustments to fit all around.
And by the way - did this employer know about this woman's "disability" when he hired her? Was there full disclosure and an understanding of how this disability might be handled? I would guess the answer to that is NO.

I guess the question boils down to this: Is it o.k. to trample someone else's freedoms to insure someone else's, even at work? In this case, the freedom for someone to wear cologne versus the allergic woman's ability to be free from dealing with people wearing cologne during her working day.

Phobias are also documented disabilities...So what happens if someone in the workplace is severely Judeophobic or Japanophobic? Does that mean they can force the employer not to hire Jews or Japanese people?

It'll be real interesting to see how the court rules on this one.

Check out this List of Phobias


Dana said...

This should be a city wide ban. After all, she should have the same right to ride the bus, visit the zoo, go to the library, etc. as anyone else. ADA effects all of them, so why just her place of employment?

I hope none of the jurors are wearing too much perfume. That stuff should really be banned in her courtroom.

(These things are so silly!)

Angela said...

Weeelll, at the risk of seeming silly then, I can tell you that there's something in the air at my dh's workplace. Nothing he can point a finger at and say "allergy," but he gets migraines, dizzy spells, and has thrown up from the nausea.

It could be fumes from carpet, paint or perfume, and he's not imagining it. Since it's not an allergy, per se, however, he really has no recourse. (Except work from home when he can!)

Judy Aron said...

Angela - has he discussed this with his employer? are other people getting sick?

Can one compare a hazardous workplace due to mold, or chemicals from carpeting or paint to this particular story of a woman's allergy to perfume or detergents? I am not so sure.

Blueberry said...

In the future, prospective employees will have to sign a document upon hiring stating that they will only use unscented products prior clocking in, and anyone that has a scent will be sent home.

Blueberry said...

Oh, and they should have dogs at the entry to sniff out the offenders.

Angela said...

my dh's condition is probably MCS, similar to the lady here in question. It is a toughy, because although the symptoms are real, the illness isn't recognized by a lot of doctors, and there isn't any real way to test for it.

It was highlighted in our paper recently.,1,7969247.column?ctrack=1&cset=true

Dumb Ox said...

Doesn't it all come down to balance, and finding the reasonable approach to things? I mean, if there is a toxic chemical or biological element in the air, that's one thing. If it's a rare allergy a person has, whatever happened to common sense? the affected party has to bear some of the burden of the conditions of life we are all born with. Otherwise, congenital liars will claim the right to prevaricate... oh, I forgot, they call themselves Demokrats.
Great blog!

Dy said...

Well, any sympathy I might have had for her went straight out the window when she tipped her hand: "She is claiming unspecified damages for 'pain, suffering, humiliation and outrage' suffered."

Riiiight. No. No, sweetie. Talk to the Hiroshima Maidens about "pain, suffering, humilitation and outrage". This woman knows nothing beyond dollar signs. At that point, she's a manipulative drain on the both the economy and the work environment. I hope the jury throws her out, but I doubt they will.

mccommas said...

Well let me give my two cents. At work we have these tables in the cafe and every time I see them I want to scrub them down with bleach. They are filthy! I will come in on my own time and do it just so I can eat in a clean place.

They are white -- or are supposed to be. But some people are sensitive so we have to use this useless washed down chemical that does nothing to clean except in the most superficial way.

I have had severe lung problems and I know what its like to suffer but come on.

This chick is in the wrong line of work. She needs to put herself in an environment she can live with and not expect the environment she picks to adjust to her.

That said, people out of politeness should take it easy on the perfumes and colognes.

I spray mine under my shirt (just once). I would rather people miss my 40 dollar �Obsession� by Calvin Cline than everyone in the room be overpowered by it.

Colleen, Moncton,NB said...

I too suffer from environmental alerges like this women although not as severe and I have problems with co-workers wearing too much of a scent. BUT we have a no scent policy at my office because I am not the only one with a sensitive nose. It's the people who continue to ignore the no scent policy who really tick me off because they think oh it's not me they smell it's someone else. People react differently to different scents so what might bother me may not bother the person next to me and vice versa. So why not honor the policy alredy put in place.
If they can ban smoking in the workplace because of health issues then scents should be the same, afterall it does affect my health and my performance at work.

Anonymous said...

What makes this even worse is that its not a real disease. The AMA, the CDC, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology have all stated that supposed chemical sensitivity (the reason behind the 'scent free' policies) is not a real disease. Rather its a form of anxiety disorder.

So this is different from second hand smoke (for which there is a ton of great epidemiological evidence for harm). In every study where people with 'MCS' were exposed to the agent they claimed sensitivity to or a placebo they do no better than chance at determining which is which unless they can smell the offending agent. Its a matter of confusing 'don't like' with 'allergic'.

Anonymous said...

Colleen: "It's the people who continue to ignore the no scent policy who really tick me off because they think oh it's not me they smell it's someone else."

Well did you ever consider that people who use those scents may also have health problems? I have eczema (and its cousin atopic asthma) so I have to use certain products with scents to keep myself healthy. Specifically Selenuim Sulfide (Selsun) and Coal Tar shampoos which have a noticeable odor to control my eczema.

Not using certain products makes me sick. So your rights not to have to smell things you dislike trumps my right to have my skin not be like this:

Chanel No. 5 said...

I am an unabashed liberal... and a feminist... AND a Canadian (don't shoot me) also from Moncton NB and I could not agree more with the OP's post! Canada is currently undergoing a scent-free CRAZE under the current Conservative government and now virtually all government buildings and workplaces and public transit and even some universities have these stupid "No Scents Makes Good Sense" signs plastered everywhere. Most of the policies are toothless and just annoying, although the ones at work is particularly egregious.

Blueberry, your mention of "in the future" we will have to sign forms at work stating we won't wear scents and will be sent home if we do...? In my past three jobs that has already happened and I have known people who HAVE been sent home after someone whined about the alleged scents they were wearing. Scented deodorant, shampoo/conditioner, hairspray/product, body/hand lotion, perfume, cologne, they've all been banned. Of course, management leaves the cost of complying with this idiocy on your shoulders and always sides with the hypochondriacs and control-freaks.

The thing that gets me is no one says boo to the smokers sucking on their cancer sticks directly outside the front and back entrances and the stench that follows them everywhere when they come back inside... They have their rights too to poison themselves and everyone around them with second and third hand smoke (not to mention the filthy butts they litter the ground with), so why can't I wear my bleeping Chanel???

I can see banning it in the hospitals and doctor's offices as just common courtesy (and to do with the fact that there are some legitimate reactions by people with SEVERE respiratory conditions), but by and large it's ridiculous.

Personally, I am always highly suspect of anyone claiming to have scent allergies these days, especially given how "in vogue" it seems to be right now. It's not a universally agreed-upon medical condition and frankly, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of their claims.

When we talk about those who complain so vociferously about their "scent sensitivities", we assume everyone is playing with a full deck and the truth is, not everyone does... Certainly there are some who do suffer legitimate allergies and such but then, so do many people. My sister is allergic to walnuts and peanuts. Does she demand that her workplace ban them outright and that everyone else bend to meet her allergies because she is a special little snowflake? No... there is such a thing as reasonable accommodation and she is self-aware enough to take the necessary precautions on *her* end to ensure that she does not have a bad reaction. She always carries the necessary medical items with her wherever she goes as it is HER responsibility, no one else's.

[part 1]

Chanel No. 5 said...

[part 2/2]

My suspicions were confirmed when I read this from the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

The thing that really stood out to me in that article was the point it made about so-called scent sufferers having a high degree of suggestibility when it came to how much "discomfort" they claimed to register with given scents. If a researcher told them they would feel more discomfort with Scent A than Scent B, they reported exactly that, regardless of the concentration levels or chemical makeups of either scent. To me, this is nothing more than the classic placebo effect just found in a different context. People think they feel discomfort because they think they *should* feel discomfort... it has also been my experience that many of the people complaining tend to be hypochondriacs or people with serious control issues. This is anecdotal for sure but I am just talking about my experiences with it.

Scent is also the number one triggering sense for memory. What many of these individuals may be reacting to, even physiologically, is their own associations with said scent or even with scents in general.

In the social justice movement we have a saying: your rights end where mine begin... this goes both ways. We should always be respectful while also keeping in mind that the whole world cannot bend to suit our will. Realizing this fact is part of being an grown-up and while I still see a lot of adults around me, all the time I see fewer and fewer grown-ups.