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Scent Awareness

RDC Occupational Health & Safety Committee Scented Products: When Used Indoors May Have a Negative Impact on Health

Some people have become very sensitive to certain chemicals as a result of past exposures. They can suffer a wide range of health effects such as rashes, sore throat, severe headaches, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, wheezing, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, whenever they are exposed to very low levels of certain chemicals found in scented products. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of people in North America have some form of breathing problems, such as hay fever and asthma, which are adversely affected by the odours from scented products.

The potential impact of the chemicals in scented products on human health is magnified because people spend much of their time indoors. Most people, on a daily basis, use soap, shampoo, deodorant, laundry products, hair spray, lotions, cosmetics and fragrances (perfumes). Scents are not only worn but can be in air fresheners, wax burners, essential oils and cleaning products.  Many scented products are respiratory irritants. About 4000 chemicals are used to make fragrances and several hundred may have been used in a single product. Some of these substances are known triggers for asthma, allergies and migraine headaches in susceptible individuals. Even people that do not have pre-existing health problems may suffer a minor irritation to their upper breathing passages, eye symptoms and general discomfort / malaise.

Scented products may cause health problems that can lead to lost productivity and increased costs to the affected individual, the organization that employs them, and the health care system.

What do you do when a co-worker / student is wearing or using a scented product that appears to be causing you problems? (e.g. headache, trouble breathing, running eyes/nose, nausea, etc.)

Approach your co-worker / student in a positive manner and share your concerns about the scented product being worn or used in your area. Express how their wearing or using scented products is affecting your health. Cooperation and understanding will be the solution and the problem will be resolved.

It is also recommended that you contact your personal physician and have them determine whether or not the symptoms you are experiencing are related to an allergic reaction of this nature or from some other cause. A medical diagnosis, with the identification of specific substances to which you may be allergic will help you manage the problem. The physician may also offer you some options for management of the condition if it can be confirmed that scented products are the cause.

What if I'm approached about the scented product I'm wearing or using in my office or class/meeting room?

It is okay to feel surprised and taken aback. Listen to your co-worker / student in a non-defensive way. Listen to the problems / impact that the fragrance is producing on their health. Discuss openly about the scented product and ask questions. Is it the amount? Is it the type? Be willing to reach a compromise and resolve the situation in a cooperative manner.

What if approaching a co-worker/student about not wearing or using a scented product in the area does not work?

Talk to your supervisor about your concerns. Explain to your supervisor what you have tried to do in an attempt to resolve the issue. You may also wish to contact the Health, Safety  & Wellness Centre to discuss the matter and obtain additional information.

What will my supervisor do when I complain about the scented product problem?

Your supervisor should ask you questions about how exactly the scented product affects you. Be as specific as you can regarding the symptoms, (e.g. headache, runny eyes / runny nose, etc.). Explain what you are doing to relieve the symptoms, what works and what does not and when do the symptoms clear up.

Your supervisor should make notes about what you have said and about your concerns. An Incident Report may be submitted to the Health, Safety & Wellness Centre if the problem persists. Upon receipt of the Incident Report, you will be contacted by a member of the Occupational Health & Safety Committee to obtained additional information and provide some suggestions in managing the problem.

Your supervisor should then discuss your concerns in a non-confrontational / non-threatening manner with the person(s) involved, and explain the health concerns that have arisen regarding wearing or using the scented product in the area. Your supervisor should suggest that the scented product not be worn or used in the area because of the negative effects that are occurring on the health of others.

What happens when the scented product continues to be worn or used, even after the supervisor has had the discussion with the person wearing the scented product?

The Department Manager or Director will respond to each situation individually, based on the specific circumstances involved. The Department, through the supervisor of the area should endeavour to resolve the issue in a way that is respectful of the feelings and dignity of all people concerned. However, the Department's response will be guided by its responsibility to provide employees and students with a safe work / study environment, which does not compromise their health or well-being of any person. Unfortunately, there is no specific regulatory requirement (e.g. WCB Regulation) governing this topic, however, where necessary your supervisor may direct that a scented product not be worn or used in the area.

Where can I obtain further information?

The Health Safety & Wellness Centre maintains information on this topic and can provide both information and suggestions on managing the situation. This information on scented products originated and is borrowed with permission from Victoria Island University in British Columbia.

If you have any questions or concerns please contact Health Safety Wellness Centre at 403.342.3427 or health [dot] safety [at] rdc [dot] ab [dot] ca (email)

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