Move to restrict scents is wafting through workplaces

November 21, 1994|By Lesli Hicks | Lesli Hicks,San Antonio Express-News

Brigitte Saidi is allergic to some of the most popular perfumes on the market. So the management consultant who also owns two office complexes recently became part of a national trend when she urged her tenants to go scent-free.

"It's part of a wider interest in clean air," Ms. Saidi says.

Like smoking bans, which surged in the early 1990s, scent bans now appear to be wafting through U.S. workplaces.

Employers are implementing them in response to a growing number of workers raising a stink about colleagues who wear copious amounts of cologne.

It's no longer a question of finicky noses. Some product components actually trigger allergic reactions -- a syndrome called multiple chemical sensitivity-environmental illness, experts said.

That's why the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work recently barred its 250 students from wearing scents. In explaining the policy, university officials said one sniff can temporarily paralyze a person in some cases.

For others, allergic reactions are less severe, but can include nausea, headaches, sore throats and coughing. However severe the symptom, it's often enough to disrupt a workplace.

"These policies are being put in place nationally because companies are trying to make workplaces more comfortable for everyone," said T. Scott Gross, a management consultant in Texas.

"It's a matter of managing extremes and, unfortunately, some members of society don't get their manners at home, so that leaves it to the employer," Mr. Gross says.

If only an isolated number of employees are the source of the smell, most experts advise direct communication with the offenders.

To disperse odious office odors of varied origin, employers might also consider a new ventilation system, experts said.

"Right now, we've asked tenants to voluntarily reduce the perfume," Ms. Saidi said.

The scent-ban movement, however, highlights another issue with which employers must grapple: employee rights.

After all, one worker's right not to be engulfed by another's fragrance collides with the other's right to wear it liberally.

Rudy Boznak, president of Robinstone, a management consulting firm in Boerne, Texas, said the issue appears to be headed to the courts.

"We deal with Fortune 500 and overseas companies and we find that the trend in the '70s, '80s and early '90s was that everybody was an individual and people could smoke as long as they were in their cubicle or office," Mr. Boznak said.

Today, however, increased awareness of health and the desire to keep skilled employees makes the balancing act for employers tenuous, he said.

"We have legislation in place -- the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example -- that is so vague, that if I want to be a troublemaker, I can have an offensive odor but seek legal protection for it," Mr. Boznak said.

"That puts the employer in an arbitration mode," he said.

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