Fragrance Sensitivity a Disability Under ADA

A recent court ruling means that some employers will have to ban perfume, cologne and other scents in the workplace.


In McBride v. City of Detroit, senior city planner Susan McBride was awarded $100,000. In addition, the City of Detroit (the employer) agreed to revise its ADA handbook and training, and to post notices about the fragrance-free policy.


McBride, who suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, complained when a new coworker wore heavy perfume and used a room deodorizer. The coworker agreed to unplug the room deodorizer at McBride’s request, but refused to stop wearing perfume.  McBride appealed to her supervisor and the HR department. The city failed to recognize this as an ADA issue and informed McBride that her coworker had a constitutional right to wear perfume to work. They also informed McBride that since she had the allergy, it was her problem, not the employer’s. McBride took time off under FMLA but that failed to resolve the problem when she returned to work.


However, the federal courts disagreed. The court ruled that an allergy to scents can be a disability under ADAAA, the most recent amendment to ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under this law enforced by the EEOC, when an employee has severe symptoms as a result of being exposed to odors or scents, that can be a disability. Such symptoms would include asthma, breathing difficulties, or an itchy, inflamed rash called contact dermatitis. Once an employee has an allergy to a chemical, the symptoms are likely to be triggered by smaller and smaller amounts of exposure.

The court found that McBride’s MCS was a disability that interferred with the major life activity of breathing.


The reasonable accommodation in many cases would be for the employer to take steps to ensure that the workplace is free of scents, including banning other employees from using perfume, cologne and scented soaps.


In the most severe cases of this allergy, employees may have a condition called MCS or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which may cause a variety of symptoms including excruciating nerve pain along the arms and legs. MCS is a controversial diagnosis. While medical experts agree that individuals with MCS suffer severe, often debilitating pain, not all agree that chemicals are the cause.  However, employers still need to make accommodations for employees who are diagnosed with MCS.


Not every employee with an allergy to fragrance is entitled to an accommodation. Employees with a minor allergy that causes a runny nose or sneezing are not entitled to accommodation under ADA. In order to be considered a disability, an employee must have a condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The next blog will include information on how employers can accommodate employees with fragrance allergies or chemical sensitivity.

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