Monday, March 15, 2010

Caution: Deodorants are hazardous to Your Health in Detroit City Hall

Caution: Deodorants Are hazardous to Your Health in Detroit City Hall

At least that is the report of a recent Detroit law suit. And that’s what I thought until I read deeper into the case.

I thought of writing lines like “Detroit’s City Hall will now smell like a sweaty locker room,” or “Detroit stinks in more ways than one” taking into account the recent corruption involving Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick and Council members, or the epitome of the Nanny State, or how one poor sport can make life intolerable for all.

Susan McBride in the Detroit Planning Department complained of severe allergic reactions to the perfumes and oils wore by a co-worker. As an asthmatic, I certainly understand adverse reactions to perfumes, scents, oils, and the like.

The city did not make a reasonable accommodation. It failed to adopt a “scents” policy, which is becoming common in the workplace, or to relocate Susan or her co-worker.

Susan’s response in 2007 was to file a lawsuit under the American with Disabilities Act, alleging a failure to provide her with a reasonable accommodation.

Federal District Court Judge Lawrence Zatkoff denied Detroit’s motion to dismiss on November 25, 2008. He upheld the disability claim “based on the major life activity of breathing.”

At that point Detroit had to worry about a recent jury verdict for $10 million in favor of a DJ who acquired chemical sensitivities on the job due to a chemical spill, followed by an inability to handle the perfume worn by a co-worker. The judge reduced the verdict to $814,000.

The failure to make a reasonable accommodation, a decision by the HR Department, was inexcusable and hard to justify legally.

Detroit entered into a $100,000 settlement on February 10, 2010. It is now posting placards in the workplace pursuant to the settlement, and will change its employee handbook.

Herein lies the confusion and misinterpretations. The City adopted a “scents” policy. The story is that even deodorants are banned in the workplace. If true, Detroit would deserve additional derision, not that it needs any more during its economic collapse.

What the placards say is different. The actual interpretation may mean something else in practice, but it states “The City requests.” A request may be strong, but it is not the same as a requirement or mandate.

Detroit requests its employees to “refrain from wearing scented products, including … colognes, after shave lotions, perfumes, deodorants, body/face lotions … [and] the use of scented candles, perfume samples from magazines, sprays or solid air fresheners, room deodorizers, plug-in wall air fresheners, cleaning compounds or similar products.”

By way of comparison, the announced policy of the Michigan Department of Information is that “mild scents may be worn in moderation, but strong or offensive scents that become detrimental to the work unit will not be tolerated.”

Note carefully that the requested refrain in Detroit is on “scented” items, not unscented products, which do not thereby present a health risk to others. My lungs can certainly tell the difference.

The worse that can be said about the new Detroit policy is that it is a slight overreaction that follows an under reaction.

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