EEOC Office of Legal Counsel staff members wrote the following informal discussion letter in response to an inquiry from a member of the public. This letter is intended to provide an informal discussion of the noted issue and does not constitute an official opinion of the Commission.
ADA: Chemical Sensitivity as a Possible Disability – Reasonable Accommodation
October 1, 2007
I am responding to your letter of July 20, 2007, to Elizabeth Grossman, which asked about providing reasonable accommodation to an officer who experiences asthmatic and other symptoms when exposed to a certain type of cologne. Your letter indicated that the officers who wear the cologne have agreed on a temporary basis to stop wearing it. This letter follows up a telephone conversation we had about the specific issues you raised.
You first asked whether an individual experiencing breathing and other physical problems because of exposure to cologne could be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The individual might be protected if he has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as breathing.
If the officer has been diagnosed with asthma, a particular type of allergy, or other impairment, then he meets the first part of the definition. However, breathing difficulties that occur only upon exposure to a particular type of cologne would be insufficient to constitute a substantial limitation in breathing. If there are other colognes or chemicals or substances that also cause severe breathing difficulties, then the individual might indeed have a “disability” as defined by the ADA. You may read more about the definition of “disability” and how to determine if this officer’s particular impairment meets the definition by consulting the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on the Definition of Disability, www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/902cm.html.
Assuming the officer is covered, the Police Department may have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to address particular issues in the work environment. When an employee requests reasonable accommodation, which the officer appears to have done when he asked you if his colleagues could refrain from wearing a certain type of cologne, an employer should respond to the request to determine if it has a legal obligation to provide the requested change or something else that would constitute a reasonable accommodation. You are entitled to make two basic inquiries to determine your legal obligation: (1) whether the employee meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” thus obligating you to provide reasonable accommodation if available, and (2) whether an employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation and, if so, whether the one requested by the employee effectively solves the problem or whether other accommodations might also be effective.
The Department may request medical documentation that supports the officer’s claim that he has a diagnosed condition that is leading to breathing difficulties (i.e., that the employee’s condition rises to the level of a “disability” as discussed above), as well as information about the particular substance causing the employee’s problems. The Department may also explore with the employee, his doctor, and with anyone knowledgeable about asthma, allergies and sensitivities to certain chemicals all possible accommodations that might help this individual avoid experiencing serious breathing difficulties while at work. One organization you may wish to contact is the Job Accommodation Network at 1-800-526-7234, which can provide information on specific types of accommodations.
An employer’s obligation is to provide an effective, reasonable accommodation, but not necessarily the accommodation that an employee specifically requests. If an employer can propose an equally effective alternative, the employer is free to choose which accommodation it will provide. The Department is not required to provide any accommodation that would cause “undue hardship,” which is defined as significant difficulty or expense. This determination depends on the specific reasons that an accommodation would be unduly expensive, too difficult to provide, or would result in a significant disruption in the operation of the employer’s business. The fact that a particular accommodation would result in undue hardship will not excuse an employer from providing another accommodation that would not.
You asked whether the Department might have to ban officers from wearing the particular type of cologne that is causing one officer physical problems. While the courts have not definitively ruled on this issue, a ban on the use of substances that would infringe on coworkers’ personal grooming and hygiene choices raises issues of undue hardship, particularly when an employee is affected by exposure to a variety of substances, by exposure to very small amounts of a specific substance, or where the employee comes into contact with members of the public in the course of his employment. The ability of management to enforce a ban of certain personal grooming and hygiene products also could be difficult. Certainly, nothing in the ADA would prohibit the two officers who wear the particular type of cologne at issue in your workplace from voluntarily refraining from wearing it. In some instances, voluntary measures taken by coworkers may be an effective solution.
There may be other possible solutions that would qualify as reasonable accommodations, depending on the level of the employee’s sensitivity to the cologne and the proximity with which this officer works with those who wear it. An employer may have to explore the possibility of moving work stations to keep the officers as far apart as possible. Your letter does not mention whether the officer with the sensitivity to the cologne is partnered with an officer who wears that cologne. If so, then the Department might have to determine the feasibility of reassigning the officers to different partners. The Department also could explore whether air filters or measures affecting air flow may alleviate the problem. Exploration of alternatives require a detailed discussion with the employee to understand how quickly exposure leads to breathing and other problems and how close he must come to someone to begin experiencing these problems.
You can read more about an employer’s general obligation to provide reasonable accommodation in EEOC’s Guidance on this topic at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html.I hope this information is helpful. This letter does not constitute an official opinion of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you wish to discuss these issues further, please call me at (202) 663-4676.
Senior Attorney Advisor
cc: Elizabeth Grossman
This page was last modified on November 26, 2007.
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