Get your fragrance-free workplace off the ground

Attitudes of resistant employees will change

More than half of states have laws requiring 100% smoke-free workplaces, but hardly any workplaces are fragrance free. This is getting increasing attention, however, with growing evidence of the serious health risks posed by synthetic fragrances to workers.1

Asthma and migraine headaches are both associated with exposure to fragrances and are both leading causes of lost work time, according to Evelyn I. Bain, MEd, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, associate director and coordinator of the Massachusetts Nurses Association's Health and Safety Division. "Occupational health nurses have a great opportunity to address the issue of fragrance-free workplaces through their wellness program activities," says Bain.

"I think many occupational health nurses have not been confronted with the concern of fragrance-free workplaces, and thus have not had an opportunity to research the question," says Bain. "There is often conflict between employees on the subject if it does arise."

Employees may be resistant at first, but this changes when they realize the health risks. "It does not happen overnight, but the change in attitude over time is really amazing," Bain says. "Most people appreciate the fact that they can now breathe cleaner air and that they are not experiencing headaches, coughing, and wheezing at work."

To implement a fragrance-free workplace, do these three things:

1. Start with science.

The science of fragrances is an excellent place to begin, says Bain. Educate employees that fragrances are mainly comprised of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are associated with a multitude of adverse health effects.

Often, explaining the link between exposure to fragrance and symptoms of headache, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing makes many more people aware that they are in fact experiencing these symptoms in the presence of fragrance, says Bain.

2. Go a step further than employee use of fragrance.

Be sure that chemicals used in environmental cleaning and disinfection, as well as in other processes, are fragrance-free with low or no VOCs as well, says Bain. She recommends using the Material Safety Data Sheets that are required to be available on all chemicals used in the facility to learn what symptoms are caused by the chemicals in cleaners and disinfectants.

3. Connect costs with fragrance in the workplace.

If you link absenteeism and medical expenses to fragrance, the issue becomes "one of logic rather than emotion," says Bain. "Look at your asthma and migraine headache-related absenteeism. See if you can tease it out from personal health insurance claims," she suggests. "Both of these conditions are quite closely related to exposure to fragrance. Use that information, or simply the association, as you bring fragrance-free workplace proposals to your managers."


1. Steinemann AC. Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients. Environ Impact Assess Rev 2008. Doi: 10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002.


For more information about implementing a fragrance-free workplace, contact:

• Evelyn I. Bain, MEd, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, Associate Director, Coordinator, Health and Safety Division, Massachusetts Nurses Association, Canton. Phone: (781) 821-4625 Ext. 776. Fax: (781) 821-4445. E-mail: