Human Resources News & Insights

Court: Even a sensitive nose can be a disability under ADA

When is a medical condition serious enough to qualify as a disability? It’s one of the toughest questions HR has to answer — and setting the bar too high can wind up getting a company dragged into court.

Here’s what happened in one recent case:

While at work, an employee developed a respiratory condition. Her symptoms included trouble breathing, a bad cough, migraines and nausea.

The cause: perfume worn by a co-worker who sat nearby. The employee suffered from a “sensitivity to perfumes, chemicals and other scented objects.”

She told her manager about the problem and asked that something be done so she could continue working. One of her suggestions was relocating either her or the co-worker to another part of the building. She also provided an example of a policy banning strong perfumes in the workplace.

The manager’s response: “If you’re allergic to perfumes, it’s your problem, not the company’s.”

No action was taken, and the employee sued, claiming the company failed to accommodate her disability.

The court ruled in her favor. First, the judge ruled the woman’s sensitivity substantially limited her major life activities, and was therefore a disability under the ADA.

And, the court decided, several reasonable accommodations were available, including relocation and the policy suggested by the employee. By not using one of those suggestions, or even searching for another option, the company failed to meet its legal obligations.

Cite: McBride v. The City of Detroit

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  • Brian

    I printed this article to give to the managers where I work. Not so much because of the perfume issue, but because it speaks to a larger issues. We have 240 people in our building. There are probably some in management that have the old, “you’re-lucky-to-work-at-all-so-be-thankful-you-have-a-job” mentality.
    One way to view issues like this comes from the manager in this case – ‘it’s your problem, not the company’s’. Another way of looking at it is that for many years, employees have been subjected to factors and downright inconveniences that make it harder to work. Is it such a bad thing to try to make the entire place better to work? The knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Well, if I do this for you, I’ll have to do something special for everyone else.” But it rarely comes to extreme things, doesn’t it?
    I’m not allergic to those who wear reedonkulous amounts of cologne/perfume, but the workplace WOULD be better if you didn’t have to put up with a powerful odor that invades your senses. You can say the employee who sued was only thinking about themself, but so was the person who piled on the perfume. Would it really be so hard to move them to another area? And how many others have to put up with it, but never complained?

  • Patricia Wood

    This article was very helpful and gave me some insite to use on another problem. My husband is extremely sensitive to cigarette smoke and strong odors such as laundry detergents. He also suspects that he has been environmentally poisoned, because this sensitivity has gotten much worse the last 3 years when he’s at work, due to chemicals they use in the workplace. He doesn’t have a problem when he’s at home on the weekends, or off for a week. His employer recently relocated the “designated smoking area” right outside a main entrance door! Anyone going in or out of that door is subjected to a bevy of smokers at any given time. His supervisor’s response to his complaint about the smoking area: “go out a different door”…by the way, the other entrance door is about 1/4 mile away on a different side of the building. He works for one of the largest employers in the nation, and it’s a SHAME they don’t have more consideration for their employees.
    Also, when he discussed the harsh chemicals they use for cleaning machines (which have also created problems for other employees) they just “brushed him aside”. When he reported the problems he was having with the chemicals and requested to see a doctor about the problems, they sent him to a walk-in clinic (because this was considered workers comp). When he requested a referral to a doctor who specialized in environmental toxins, they refused stating the walk-in clinic could find nothing wrong.
    He hates to sue the company; he just wants to be able to do his job without having to endure the miserable reactions to the chemicals and cigarette smoke. Any ideas out there?

  • Mary Ann

    I agree with the courts that the employee needed compensated. I have been in similar situations as I am very allergic to odors and perfume scents and it is miserable to work under those conditions. It causes health problems that are not only expensive but debillitating to the allergic person. It also affects the quality of work of that employee. It is no different than forcing others to inhale toxic fumes or smoke as the fragrances are toxic to those who have allergies to them and do long term damage to the resiratory system…and their pocket book, as well!
    I now work for a company that is wonderfully sensitive to all of their employees and is great about addressing such “smelly” issues. Without making a “Big Stink” over it ,they simply enforce the right for every employee to breathe and request that the air is free of toxins and undesirable odors. The manager or supervisor politely addresses it or backs up the request and unless it is medically necessary for that person to wear that fragrance, they are asked to consider the others wellbeing and wear it outside of the job. My hats off to those companies that follow this right to breathe approach. They are to be supported and commended for making it the best place to work a mattter of fact ..our company was voted “the best place to work ” in a newspaper survey by the employees..go figure!

  • Renee

    Personal odors of ALL sorts should be banned in the workplace. People who are not sensitive to perfumes and scented lotions need to understand that those who ARE sensitive are as physically repulsed (if not more) by these chemical scents as they are by body odor and bad breath.

  • Cindi


    In the state of Wisconsin, employers cannot dictate to the employee what doctor they see for worker’s compensation injuries. Find out what your state law allows. Also the empoyee may want to make an inquiry to the worker’s compensation carrier and by-pass the employer.

  • Judy Buckley

    I agree with Mary Ann. I used to dislike that word “sensitive” as applied to odors, etc. – seemed too wimpy or something. Now that I am more sensitive than I used to be, I truly understand. Certain colognes or perfumes really are irritants to many and I agree people need to be considerate of their co-workers and save the scents for outside of work. People who do not have the sensitivity (or allergy) can be heard to say they don’t think there is such a thing as too much perfume. Maybe not to them, but to those who are sensitive, even a tiny bit can be too much. I’m grateful I don’t run into this very much.

  • Sharyon

    The problem with colognes/perfumes has been an issue with me for several years. When ADA came out, I jokingly said I was going to ask for an accomadation. A couple of the offenders laughed, but then their colognes/perfumes were not as noxious as had been. The odors would give me an extreme headache and close my throat to the point where I could hardly speak! Several times it became a precursor to a sinus infection which lasted for weeks. The men in my office do not wear cologne and I’ve asked that the secretary either not wear anything perfume or to use something light. Thankfully. she has no problem with this. Most people do not understand the sensitivity to odors, but it is a distinct problem for some of us.

  • Susan

    Fortunately my co-workers don’t wear any perfume or cologne that is overwhelming but the problem I run into time and time again is people who come in for applications or interviews. Sometimes the scent is so overwhelming that I have to have someone take over so I can go outside to get some fresh air to breathe again. Another problem is visitors that come into the office. We have an open office plan with cubicules. While I am separate from the main part of the office, people who come into the office must pass by my workspace and sometimes the lingering scent they leave trailing behind them is as gagging as body odor. I don’t know what to do about these situations other than avoid the person until they leave. It probably wasn’t very nice but one time I took a stack of papers and fanned the area around me to get the smell out when one particular person came in. I was trying to make a point but I don’t think she has gotten it yet.
    About 17 years ago, I used to work with a woman who ever single day, promptly at 11:00 am would “refresh” her already overapplied perfume. This would immediately kick up my allergies. I politely asked her to not wear so much perfume because I was allergic to the smell. She said I must be allergic to cheap stuff because her perfume was expensive and she knew she smelled GOOD! I had to go to management about it and fortunately, my boss also had a sensitivity so it was no problem to get this addressed.

  • Joslyn

    Wow…I never knew that having a sensitive nose was a disability. I’m always feeling sick and irritable because I’m constantly overwhelmed with odors. You know how people have their own smell? I can smell it like its being pushed into my nose. I can’t work in the malls anymore because of all the fragrance stands and stores. Thanks…this article helped me out.