Safety and OSHA News

EEOC says employer didn’t provide accommodation in fragrance/asthma case

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit against a North Carolina employer for failing to provide an accommodation to an employee whose respiratory conditions were aggravated by fragrances in the workplace. 

Elizabeth Pennell worked as a patient account representative at Advanced Home Care’s call support center in High Point, NC.

Pennell had asthma, and in August 2015, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

According to the EEOC, after she returned from medical leave, Pennell asked her supervisor if she could telecommute as accommodation for respiratory conditions which are considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Pennell needed to avoid fragrances, scents and odors that aggravate her respiratory conditions, all of which could be found in the workplace.

Pennell says she asked her supervisor at least three times during a five-month period if she could work at home. The request wasn’t granted. Pennell took medical leave because she couldn’t work at Advanced’s facility. She was fired in January 2016 after exhausting her medical leave, according to the EEOC.

The EEOC says this was discrimination against Pennell, a disabled employee, because her employer failed to provide her an accommodation and then fired her. The EEOC filed a lawsuit in federal court in North Carolina after attempts to reach a pre-litigation settlement through a conciliation process failed. If she prevails in court, Pennell could receive back pay and compensatory and punitive damages. The EEOC also seeks to prevent Advanced from discriminating against disabled employees by failing to provide accommodations.

When a disabled employee is willing to work, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation unless the company can show undue hardship.

A study by the California Department of Public Health published this year in the Journal of Asthma says fragrance use in the workplace is associated with work-related asthma (WRA).

The study characterizes WRA cases associated with fragrance exposures in California workplaces from 1993 through 2012. Perfume was the ninth most common exposure.  A total of 270 WRA cases associated with fragrance exposure were reported during this period, representing 3.8% of all confirmed cases.

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