Making Sense of Scent Sensitivities

Introduction: This podcast is brought to you by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Elaine: Can you smell that?

Chris: Smell… what?

Elaine: I’m not sure what it is…maybe a cologne or soap? Don’t get me wrong: it smells nice! But unfortunately, it’s giving me a headache. Did you use something new today?

Chris: Uh oh… I did put on a new hand lotion this morning, but I didn’t smell it on myself. Are you scent sensitive?

Elaine: Yes, I am! And other workers are too—which makes today’s topic even timelier: making sense of scent sensitivities.

Chris: Good call… let me go wash my hands first though!

Chris: And back! Let’s begin.

Elaine: Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Thanks for joining us today as we talk about scents—specifically, scents and their impact in the workplace.

Let’s start with reviewing the types of scents that we’re talking about.

Chris: Good call. Scents can be all types of smells, but the kind that we’re referring to today are scent sensitivities from fragrances. Think of a shower-fresh deodorant stick, or sandalwood balm for your dry skin.

Elaine: Or maybe the green-apple hand soap in the office bathroom or the lemon zest desk sanitizer.

Chris: Exactly. Although common scents can come from everyday items like perfume and cologne, there are so many other ways that fragrances can bombard our senses. 

Elaine: And even though these smells may be pleasant to some, for your coworkers with sensitivities to scent, the fragrances may come with unpleasant health effects. In fact, according to the Canada Human Rights Act, this reaction is a medical condition and recognized disability.

Workers might experience symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, sore throat, runny nose, or headaches. Their eyes, nose or skin could get itchy. They might start wheezing, coughing, or may even have difficulty breathing or asthma.

Chris: Reactions to fragrances can definitely vary from one person to the next!

Elaine: This can create a challenge in the workplace where people interact or sit close together, like a boardroom, cash desk, or any other place where people are with others. That's why it’s important for people to know that scent sensitivity is so much more than a dislike of a fragrance: it's an actual medical concern.

Chris: I've heard about using the arm's length rule - you shouldn't be able to detect a scent from more than an arm's length from someone.

Elaine: Sorry, I have to bust that myth! If someone is scent sensitive due to a chemical, one arm's length won’t matter. It's better to prevent the exposure.

Chris: You’re right! Elimination is always helpful, but it can be hard to do with the number of chemical fragrances that are in the products we use every day. To help, look for products labelled “perfume free” or “fragrance free”.

Elaine: And remember while “unscented” products may not have a detectable scent, they may contain other chemicals that are used to mask any scent. Lastly, fragrances added to products are not always labelled as ingredients…sometimes, their formulas are “top secret” and the companies who make them want to keep them that way, so no one can copy their trademark smells.

Chris: Speaking of companies, let’s talk about workplaces and how they can accommodate scent sensitivities in the workplace.

Elaine: Good idea! If scents are suspected to be affecting someone’s health, follow these steps to clear the air.

First and foremost, adopt a scent-free policy in the workplace. This policy reminds people—customers included—to think twice about what they put on their body before coming into a work environment.

Chris: You can also post a sign at the entranceways of your workplace to remind visitors and employees that the building or office is “scent free” and that fragrances can aggravate or cause health issues for people with sensitivities or other health conditions.

Elaine: Encourage all employees to use scent-free products and choose scent-free products for the workplace. Eliminate the emissions of scents from items like cleaning products, soaps, and building materials. Also, if a person identifies as being scent sensitive, it’s best to work with them to determine what chemicals are causing the issue so those items can be managed appropriately.

Chris: Another tip? Maintain good indoor air quality to prevent scents from being spread throughout the building.

Elaine: You’ll also want to review all safety data sheets for the products currently used and for those you are considering using to make sure that the ingredients are acceptable.

Chris: Don’t forget to educate workers on scents sensitivities and how fragrances can impact the health of their coworkers.

Elaine: Exactly. Make the scent-free dream work with teamwork and ask for support in maintaining a fragrance-free workplace so everyone can breathe easy.

For more information about scents in the workplace and how to implement a scent-free policy, visit and search on “scent free”.

Thanks for listening!