What to do about a smelly workplace?
March 5, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

How can I get my coworkers from compulsively using air freshener, as it gives me a terrible, go-home-early migraine? Asking nicely every day for the last week has been unsuccessful.

I work in a medium-sized state government office. It's your typical cubicle farm in which the walls create the illusion of privacy without blocking sound or smell. There are no windows and ventilation is poor. Candles were banned a couple months ago because of potential fires, but other fragrance-producing items are allowed. I have a couple coworkers who have those heated oil/wax warmers, several with reed diffusers, and a few who have plug-ins in their office. And no limit of spray aereosol air freshener.

In all fairness, we work with clients who are occasionally a bit stinky and if the use was infrequent, I would be less miserable. But when there's six or seven different warmer/plug-in/whatevers going on a given afternoon, for me it's a one-way ticket to migraine city. I have asked my coworkers on several occasions to please turn their fragrance-producing items off, and they seem happy to comply... until the next day, when they turn them on again. This week has been especially bad (two co-workers are now selling Scentsy items as a side business, damn them). I don't want to be the obnoxious woman who prevents people from using their overpriced flameless candles and whatnot, but I also don't want to keep spending my afternoons in a pain-filled world of light sensitivity and dry-heaving.

Moving into a different cubicle is not an option, I'm already all the way in the back of the office and there's nowhere else to go. I've tried speaking to the office manager but her office is also full of reed diffusers and potpourri, and they're not going anywhere. I'm hesitant to take it up with her supervisor, as it is not directly work-related and really should be handled on a lower level. How can I make my workplace more bearable while not completely pissing off my coworkers?
posted by kella to Work & Money (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What has HR said? You should definitely go to them and raise the issue. Bottom line: something in the workplace is making you ill. HR should be going to lengths to prevent this from happening. Who cares if it hurts their feelings or they're pissed off? The scent is poisoning you. (Most places I have worked have had a No Fragrance Policy. It's pretty common for this exact reason.)
posted by meerkatty at 10:13 AM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

as it is not directly work-related

if it's preventing you from doing your job with reasonable comfort, then it is work-related. "pain-filled world of light sensitivity and dry-heaving" <>
i would definitely talk to someone higher up and try to get this solved. asking to not have to be subjected to intense pain every day is not asking that much. seriously. you might not be able to ban the use of fragrances (that might be a stretch), but there may be some other option or solution that you aren't aware of.

and side note: why the heck are people selling items on the office clock?
posted by joyeuxamelie at 10:13 AM on March 5, 2010

Is there any kind of fragrance you can stomach? Maybe real essential oils? If so, you could try making gifts of those to the worst offenders, and politely/sheepishly explaining that while you see the need for air freshening, maybe the method could change so you don't get a migraine?

Also, perhaps make sure a few chatty coworkers actually visually SEE you having a migraine and doing your best to live with it and not complain (slump in the hallway and let them catch you or something). If they are moved for your plight they may help support your cause to others.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2010

Seconding everything slo42 said. In the meantime, perhaps deploying a fan or two (hell, maybe a dozen of them churning away will get the point across) might help.
posted by Etrigan at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2010

Would a fan for your cubicle help? I use a USB fan when my office gets stuffy and it makes a big difference. Not sure it would work on the WMD level of air freshener that's coming your way, but might be worth a try. Mine is kind of like this, but they have heavier duty ones. You could also look at a proper free standing fan too of course.
posted by IanMorr at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2010

It IS work related if it's making you go home sick. Presumably they hired you because they need you to be around and they need you to get your work done. You're having difficulty doing that because of a simple, identifiable thing your coworkers are doing. I don't see how it's not directly work-related if it's getting in the way of getting your work done.

Of course it SHOULD be handled on a lower level, but if your supervisor doesn't take you seriously then you have no choice but to go over her head. I would have one more discussion with her and document it and your previous discussions before you go to her supervisor.
posted by amethysts at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2010

Filter mask? I'm not sure how large the oil droplets are, in the air, but there's almost certainly a mask that'll work.

Yes, it will be mortally embarrassing. It will, however, make the point rather clearly.
posted by aramaic at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2010

Have they never heard of Febreeze? Stinky client? A few strategic sprays of wherever they sat -- done.

Ugh, you seriously have my sympathies. This is Reason #642 why offices suck.

My approach would be two-fold, go to your doctor and talk to them about your sensitivity. See if they will write out some kind of statement that the scents are contributing to your migraines and your ability to breathe. You will have to go to your supervisor and her supervisor -- do it at the same time, it's not an escalation, it's information! Tell them that you are feeling desperate as the workplace smells are giving you continuous nausea and headaches and it's making it very difficult to get work done. You might look into worker's comp claims for missing days due to environmental conditions though I don't think you'll have to go that far.

It's pretty ridonkulous that they don't already have a policy in place to deal with perfumes in a close, closed environment.
posted by amanda at 10:17 AM on March 5, 2010

I revise my statement -- go to HR. It's their issue to oversee these office policies.
posted by amanda at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2010

Not work related? Please! Our HR sends out letters of "your perfume is stinking up the joint. Refrain!" all the time.

You can also play nice and ask people to turn the stink on after hours and turn it off when they get in.
posted by stormpooper at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2010

I am "exquisitely sensitive" to many fragrances, according to my allergist. Asking my (latest) supervisor to read this article help her understand me.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:21 AM on March 5, 2010

This is what HR departments are for. Go and talk to them. If it's interfering with your productivity at work, it's their business. Let them send out the emails, or maybe they can get you an activated-charcoal air filter or something that blows de-scented air at you if they don't want to do anything about everyone's scented crap.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:23 AM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: As a government office, I'm surprised your office isn't already fragrance-free. I would go to HR and explain the situation. These types of policies usually cover potpourri and air fresheners, but they can also be used to tactfully approach employees with strong perfumes or body odor. These scents are making you ill and preventing you from working and your employer need to be responsive to your concerns.
posted by annaramma at 10:27 AM on March 5, 2010

I too am used to 'no scents' policies at work. Heck, wearing a bit of perfume or scented hand lotion is strongly discouraged, never mind aerosol fresheners and plug ins! In my particular area, we don't even eat oranges at our desk because the scent triggers a migraine in one of our workers - no argument, you eat them in the kitchen/break room, or you don't eat them at all.
Definately speak to your supervisor and theirs, and contact HR to see if there *is* already a policy in place, and if not, getting one put in. You suffering daily is making you non productive, and that's a workplace issue.
posted by sandraregina at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2010

Yes. Go to HR. This is an issue of workplace safety and, if they wanna be dicks, you could demand a reasonable accommodation. (Which in this case is tremendously easy...don't use air freshener.)

You could, if you wanted to be super sweet, suggest something more natural and less toxic/nasty...

I work for an organization who works with people with disabilities, as such our office must be extremely accessible. Our bathroom has a spritz bottle of this grapefruit extract stuff that neutralizes without being too much, and we are supposed to be extremely judicious about its use.
posted by TomMelee at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2010

You could try seeing if an air purifier in your cubicle would make a difference. If it does, it seems like a reasonable accommodation for work to pay for it. However, getting them to do so without alienating your supervisor and management could be tough, so if you can afford it you might just buy one yourself and if it helps keep it, and if not return it.

I'd definitely talk to HR, as they should be on the lookout for things like this. Maybe something along the lines of "I've been having this problem, where I get migranes and throw up from the scented air products, and I'm trying to think of solutions. Maybe you can help?" See what they say, and how friendly/accommodating they are.

If this is taking place in a US workplace, it's better for them to pay for an air purifier than deal with the hassle of a worker's comp claim from you being sick at work, or an unemployment claim if you can't continue to work due to the illness. Plus, employers have an obligation to make a reasonable accommodation - however if your workplace isn't friendly and responsive, it may not be worth alienating them. If they are open to it, they may still need you to provide a doctor's note, which is not them being difficult just them following protocol. But you could start by making contact with HR, feel them out.

Good luck!
posted by quinoa at 10:36 AM on March 5, 2010

I agree with quinoa. Mention to HR that you are going to file a worker's comp claim and are going to take sick days and they will deal with it pronto.
posted by kenliu at 10:52 AM on March 5, 2010

Fellow migraine victim here. The work-related/productivity piece of this is obviously important, but people are doing something to you that aggravates a known medical condition. If you had a skin condition it wouldn't be ok for people to squirt cologne on you without your consent. This isn't different. Migraines delete entire useful days from your life. I have a ton of respect for your handling of this - I try not to even mention mine unless it's necessary - but you could conceivably make a pretty big stink (ha) about this.

I've had conversations with my boss & my boss's boss about it and they've been great. Do try talking to your HR rep if you don't think you'll get any love on that front. My neurologist is also very willing to talk/write letters as necessary. You can certainly continue to go about it gently/quietly until you hit a dead end.

Best of luck, with the work part and the icepick-through-your-eye part.
posted by mintcake! at 10:54 AM on March 5, 2010

IANYHRR (I Am Not Your HR Rep), but I did work in the field many years. Nthing talk to HR.

Also, Febreeze products do not seem to trigger any of my (Gawd Awful) Migraines; you may have some luck with that suggestion. It's the only air freshener brand I can use.
posted by _paegan_ at 11:11 AM on March 5, 2010

Have you considered an air purifier/deodorizor and a fan for you desk? It might not remove everything, but it might clean it up significantly.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:29 AM on March 5, 2010

Demand that your office go fragrance-free.

Then point out to your coworkers that they can buy ionizing air purifiers with HEPA filters and charcoal, and that these will actually remove the scents of stinky clients instead of just covering them up. And without all the toxic chemicals and petroleum products which are involved in air scenting devices, save the planet, etc etc etc.
posted by ErikaB at 11:45 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I suffer from chronic migraines, too. First, I am very sorry you have to deal with this horrible and poorly understood medical condition. Second, I have zero qualms about doing whatever is necessary (sweet or bitchy) to prevent myself from being debilitated by unrelenting pain. You owe it to yourself to adopt the same attitude. Preventing migraines is a war against the world of sensory input and you have to fight the good fight.

I agree, you need to go to HR. If they don't take it seriously, MAKE THEM. There is a plethora of documented scientific evidence that what you are experiencing can trigger your medical condition. Furthermore, you know migraine is rated by the World Health Organization as one of the top 20 most debilitating conditions to live with, right? It's up there with things like epilepsy. And even further: once you start experiencing an increase in migraines (as you are, due to these office assholes) you greatly increase your chances of developing chronic migraine. Chronic migraine is qualified as a disability in America. Which is to say, once you're reached that point you are qualified to stop working and receive disability checks as income. Does your office REALLY want to be the one responsible for that tipping point?

Also, to weigh in on the Febreeze suggestions: maybe your mileage may vary, but Febreeze almost certainly gives me a migraine, every time. Diluted vinegar in a spray bottle is a pretty effective air freshener. It does smell like vinegar (which I don't have a problem handling), but the smell dissipates pretty quickly.
posted by sickinthehead at 12:50 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Go to a doctor and get your sensitivity documented. Then go to HR and explain that you may have to go on disability leave if the scent in the office continues to give you migraines. t can get quite oppressive, and you shouldn't have to tolerate migraines at work.
posted by theora55 at 1:13 PM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the responses. I posted that from home on my lunch break and then went back to the office. Afternoons are usually critical stink time and today was no different. Started feeling the base of the skull/back of the head oncoming migraine pain about half an hour after I got in, and it's now pretty much full blown. I spoke to my supervisor and our area manager (who was thankfully in the office today). According to the area manager there is no policy banning fragrances but I was told that if I had a note from a doctor, she could pretty much immediately ban that sort of thing from the office. Thankfully I've put in some overtime this week so I was able to leave work early without having to dip into my sick leave. So I've made an appointment with my GP and I imagine he'll have no problems writing a note for me. At this point I don't care if my coworkers are annoyed. This has gone on for long enough, and the job (in Human Services) is difficult enough without adding extra avoidable migraines into the mix. Thanks again!
posted by kella at 1:19 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in HR and I've had to deal with this one plenty. Get the note from your doctor and it becomes an ADA issue, they have to accommodate you. It completely sucks ass that your supervisor and area manager are so weak that they won't just handle it, but whatever - just get the note.

Off topic, but the first time I ever had to deal with a "smelly coworker" complaint, the guy's feet had gone necrotic. (He was diabetic and completely in denial about what was happening to him.) If someone had warned us earlier, he might have gotten help sooner and been able to save more of his feet.

As much as I hate to say it, HR is there for crap like this, especially in organizations with really weak managers. Make them be the bad guy. They're used to it. Believe me.
posted by pomegranate at 4:15 PM on March 5, 2010

If you have outside clients coming in, chances are that some of them are also sensitive to scent. You may be able to add this to your supporting information when you speak to HR.

I don't have the same reaction you do, but two of my good friends do, and it can just wreck them for the rest of the day. Personally, I'd rather smell the occasional stinky visitor than one of those bizarre chemical nose anaesthetics with committee-chosen approximate stench-labels. (Grapefruit cranberry-pomegranate Tuscan Febreze is next, just wait).
posted by Sallyfur at 2:14 AM on March 6, 2010

Hey I just came across this article and remembered this question. If they don't listen to you, be like this lady and sue them for $100,000 (she won!)
posted by amethysts at 10:40 PM on March 14, 2010

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