Scents and Your Rights at Work in Canada

in Asthma, Features
Published: July 2, 2010

During renovations, S.C. Johnson and Son gave a choice to its employees, some of whom have asthma and environmental allergies: they could work from home or transfer to a desk elsewhere within the Brantford, Ontario headquarters. The idea was to prevent susceptible staff from being exposed to the dust, paint fumes and other irritants that would be in the air.

The company, makers of well-known household products such as Ziploc, Windex, Shout, Pledge and Raid, is known to be accommodating, especially when it comes to employees’ health. S.C. Johnson and Son has nursing staff available to each of its two manufacturing plants and two sales offices across the country. There is a central medical centre that can refer employees to specialists, and will make recommendations to the employee’s manager and the human resource team on how to best accommodate the person’s needs.

For example, if a worker in a manufacturing plant has a sensitivity to a fragrance, the company might move that person to a different production line. The company cafeteria also has clear signs and menus to protect people with food allergies.

“We are 100 per cent behind our employees at all times,” says Leslie Duncan, a human resources manager with the Canadian division of the company. That level of commitment has earned S.C. Johnson a spot on many “top places to work” lists around the world. Unfortunately, the caring corporate culture is not universal.

Chris Haromy, a respiratory therapist and certified asthma and COPD educator with the Ontario Lung Association, fields many calls from frustrated staffers who are having asthmatic reactions at the office. Often, they are having symptoms from colleagues’ use of scented products.

“They say, “I’ve put the posters up, the company has sent out e-mails and communications about it, and people are still wearing perfume,’” he says. There is such a wide gulf between companies that accommodate and those that won’t, or where fellow employees won’t comply, that it can be hard for the employee with asthma or severe environmental allergies to know what his or her rights are.

The first step for the employee is to talk to his or her union (if applicable) and manager to try to come up with a solution. But if that fails, the good news is, there is recourse.

Allergic Living finds that under human rights legislation in Canada, companies are legally obligated to accommodate people with disabilities, and asthma, allergy, and even sensitivity to fragrance are considered disabilities.

For instance, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal ruled that there was cause to investigate the complaint of a casino worker for the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority who had lost her job because she wasn’t able to work in a smoke-filled environment.

The question of what management is required to do to accommodate staff with respiratory complaints, however, will depend on the size and resources of the company, as well as the magnitude of the change the employee is seeking.

Risks and Rights

There are many risks in the workplace for employees with asthma or environmental allergies. The office may have old, dusty carpets, mold or off-gassing from furniture. Scented products, either on other employees or from cleaning supplies and air fresheners, can set off asthma attacks in those with the disease. “Asthma in the workplace is pretty common,” says Dr. Jeremy Beach, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta who has researched occupational asthma.

“You can get asthma because you’ve had it since you were a kid and you’re exposed to something at work that triggers an attack. Or you can get asthma that first develops because of an allergy to something at work. The classic examples would be people doing jobs like auto body repair work or working in a laboratory with animals.”

Whatever the cause, Canada’s broad definition of disability will apply. “Basically, the question is, ‘do you have something that could possibly be considered a disability?’” says Cara Wilkie, a Toronto-based lawyer at Bakerlaw, a firm that specializes in disability law and human rights. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then a human rights commission will “stop looking at whether you have a disability, and just look at what you might need as a result,” she says.

If an employee feels his or her asthma or allergy is not being accommodated at work, that employee has the right to file a complaint with the province’s human rights commission. (In the case of an employee of the federal government, a crown corporation or in a federally regulated industry, such as a bank, the complaint would go to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.)

The process varies with each commission, but generally, a lawyer is not needed at the early stages. Most commissions will conduct an initial investigation, or series of interviews, to determine whether the complaint has merit.