Monday, March 25, 2013

Fragrance in the Workplace

I recently stumbled across an article entitled "Fragrance in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Knowwhich was published in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research. It isn't a perfect article. The author inadvertently reinforced one of her own points (that chemical companies fight the growing trend of fragrance-free policies) by mentioning the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute (ESRI). ESRI is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing industry-funded group. For more about the group and its activities, see the article Multiple Chemical Sensitivities under SiegeOther than that understandable but unfortunate mention, however, I find the article to be very encouraging. It makes the following points:

  • The topic of fragrance exposure hasn't received the attention it deserves in the management field.

  • Fragrance exposure in the workplace is following the same trajectory as smoking exposure once did: It took decades to acknowledge the dangers of cigarette smoke and then a few more years before the workplace became free of it. In 1965, 42% of Americans smoked and people who complained about second-hand smoke and its health effects were considered part of a fringe movement. The tide turned, however, and by 2007, at least 30 states had passed comprehensive smoke-free laws.

  • Today, the average consumer is as unaware of the dangers of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances as people once were of the harms caused by cigarette smoke. The author notes that "when ignorance is replaced with knowledge, a large segment of the population will respond with a demand for clean and safe air in the workplace.”

  • A rising number of public places have declared their institutions to be fragrance free and it appears that a paradigm shift is beginning.

  • Unlike cigarette smoke, synthetic fragrance is not visible and is almost unlimited in where it is found. The author notes that "because of these differences, businesses may underestimate the potential likelihood of a fragrance free movement reaching the same level of public awareness as passive smoke and having as far reaching and broad results as the nonsmoking movement."  She notes that this attitude may prove costly.

  • Tobacco companies fought the anti-smoking movement and fragrance companies are fighting efforts to make workplaces and public spaces fragrance free.

  • There are reasons to believe that the fragrance-free movement will make quicker progress than the anti-smoking movement did. Hundreds of studies are being conducted and reported annually and the issue is being addressed by governmental agencies, public and private health care organizations, consumer advocates, insurers, lawyers, economists, and risk analysts.

  • One in five people in the U.S. experience recognized adverse effects from fragrance exposure. These may involve the skin, eyes, respiratory or neurological systems.

  • The great majority (80-90%) of fragrances are synthesized from petroleum and include chemicals like acetone, phenol, and toluene. Fragrance companies use over 4000 chemicals and hundreds can be used in any given product. Over 80% of the chemicals have never been tested for their toxicity. Despite this, almost one-third of the chemical additives used are known toxins.

  • Adverse fragrance-related health effects cost employers billions of dollars annually.

  • Fragrance-related workplace complaints are rising. There are a variety of applicable laws that may require employers to change the work environment. The author notes that "the general duty clause of the Occupations Health and Safety Act requires employers to 'take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker.' Enough research demonstrates negative effects of synthetic fragrance, that employers can no longer deny knowledge of what constitutes basic precautions."

  • Developing an effective fragrance-free policy involves the following steps:

    1. Conduct a needs assessment identifying sources of exposure and who may be affected by them. This includes not only employees, but members of the public and others who share the environment.

    1. Perform an organizational chemical assessment which reviews all chemical products used in the business and those used by employees.

    1. Conduct a literature and legal search. Managers need an awareness of the health effects of synthetic fragrances and familiarity with applicable legislation.

    1. Develop and implement a fragrance-free policy. Include employee representation in all phases of policy development, implementation, and evaluation.

    1. Ensure support from top executives and occupational health and safety committee members. Make sure all departments understand their role in the policy's success.

    1. Develop a discipline and enforcement process. Put clear guidelines in place for confronting violations and resolving problems. A shared enforcement approach is preferable to a "watchdog" system.

    1. Develop strategies for communicating the policy to non-employees who share the environment.

    1. Evaluate the policy for effectiveness and make changes as needed. Let employees know of the success of policy implementation on health and productivity.

I agree that people will someday look on our culture’s widespread use of synthetic fragrances in much the same way that we now view the prevalence of cigarette smoke in previous decades. From a business and legal standpoint, it is wise for businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations to address the issue now. It is also simply the right thing to do in order to protect human health. Not everyone reading this will have the authority to change an organization’s fragrance policy, but every one of us can choose not to personally purchase and use synthetically-fragranced products. It’s a start. 


DebraSY said...

I'm glad the journal article's author thinks the anti-fragrance movement will move faster than the anti-smoking campaigns, but I think she's wrong. This issue is more challenging than cigarettes. Second-hand smoke was regarded as unpleasant even before we recognized the health risks, whereas some people actually like fragrances, and not just perfumes.

I was asking my realtor for recommendations about prioritizing certain home improvements and repairs over time with the thought that I will likely sell the house in four to five years. As you know, I don't have MCS, but I'm trying to do right by the world within my means, and also minimize my family's exposures, lest we succumb. Sadly, the house has way too much carpeting to switch entirely to tile or hardwood, so I asked my realtor, "Should I go ahead and replace the carpet now so it will have time to gas off?" She said, "Oh, no. Buyers love that new carpet smell. Wait until the last minute to do that." Sigh.

I will deal with this issue prayerfully. If I follow my realtor's advice, then my son (who will be out of the house in four years) will not be exposed to new carpet at all, and I like that idea. Moreover, my husband and I will be present for less of the gassing off time. On the down side, it makes my house less amenable to people with chemical sensitivities who need homes too. Also, it seems a kind of passive aggressive thing to do to the new home buyers, given what I know about chemicals.

Your thoughts are always appreciated.

In any event, whatever I do and whenever I do it, it will be low VOC.

Martha McLaughlin said...

As you know, I'm not a fan of carpet at all. New carpets have one set of chemical issues and older carpets have different issues related to the things they trap. That said, if you aren't experiencing problems with your carpeting now, my vote would probably be to avoid replacing it with new carpet while you're living in the house.

I do find it encouraging to watch house-hunting shows on TV and see that most people seem to want hard surface floors these days. Carpet seems to be falling out of favor. If you could replace the carpet in a room or two with hardwood or tile, you might make the house both healthier and more marketable. I do understand budgetary restrictions, though, and it's true that there are better carpet options than there used to be.

Yes, it's interesting that people have come to associate the smell of certain chemicals with things being new. The famous "new car smell" is another example. We have a long way to go as a society before we really understand and internalize the chemical problem.

DebraSY said...

On the up side, when my realtor saw my main floor, she said we would get our money back if we replaced the carpet in the living room with hard wood. Also, my laundry room is a converted bedroom upstairs that has carpeting in it. I was afraid she'd tell me to convert it back to a bedroom (which would be really expensive). She said she liked it as it was but that it needs to have a tile floor. Hooray! I wish I didn't have so much carpet upstairs, but I do. And it's the chemical trapping kind, too. Kind of a short shag.

Martha McLaughlin said...

New carpet is being installed in hubby's office this week. You can imagine how excited I am about that.