MCS is a recognized disability

Everyone is entitled to safe, accessible air. Accommodations for multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) may be required in order to remove barriers, and support accessible breathing. Why is this important? Air quality can impact access to public spaces such as health care (including emergency services, hospital accommodation, clinics, or ambulances), essential services, transportation, places of worship and learning, and the workplace. Lack of accessible air may result in barriers to inclusion and participation, income loss, housing insecurity, social isolation, and increased disability.

MCS is legally recognized as a disability by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act. A person who experiences MCS has the right to healthy air.

How can we remove barriers to support accessibility in the workplace?

Access supports include:

  • Fragrance-free policies that promote effective education and public awareness of how both scented products and unscented chemicals can create access barriers
  • Enforcement of scent/fragrance-free policies
  • Least-toxic product use, including during cleaning, renovation, construction, building maintenance, and garden care of workplaces, healthcare, places of learning and worship and in community spaces
  • Mould-free buildings
  • Maintaining and cleaning building ventilation systems
  • Considering, as needed, N95 or activated charcoal masks, as well as HEPA and activated charcoal air filters as assistive devices
  • Disability advocacy (especially for invisible disabilities), and the creation of an inclusive workplace culture
  • Creation of accessible healthcare institutions

Obtaining accommodation

According to the Canadian Human Rights Act, individuals who experience MCS are entitled to reasonable accommodations as part of an employer’s duty to accommodate. Businesses and service providers have a legal obligation to meaningfully address an individual’s access needs:

Employers and service providers have an obligation to adjust rules, policies or practices to enable you to participate fully. It applies to needs that are related to the grounds of discrimination. This is called the duty to accommodate.

The duty to accommodate means that sometimes it is necessary to treat someone differently in order to prevent or reduce discrimination. For example, asking all job applicants to pass a written test may not be fair to a person with a visual disability. In such cases, the duty to accommodate may require that alternative arrangements be made to ensure that a person or group can fully participate” (Source: Canadian Human Rights Commission).

If you experience chemical sensitivities or scent sensitivity, you have the right to seek accommodation if you experience disability or barriers to access due to chemical product use and/or air quality. This includes, but is not limited to, the following circumstances:

  • In the workplace
  • For income replacement, if your disability means that you are no longer able to work
  • From your landlord
  • In hospitals, schools, or other public service providers such as restaurants, movie theatres, government agencies, etc.

Accommodations in the workplace for MCS are required to be made to what is called “the point of undue hardship:”

It is also important to consider that there is a reasonable limit to how far your employer or service provider has to go to accommodate your needs. Sometimes accommodation is not possible because it would cost too much, or create health or safety risks. This is known as undue hardship. Your employer or service provider can claim undue hardship as the reason why certain policies or practices need to stay in place, even though they may have a negative effect on you. They will need to provide sufficient evidence” (Source: Canadian Human Rights Commission).

Examples of Workplace Accommodations

Dialogue may be required between employers and employees to establish and implement a scent/fragrance free policy in your workplace.

Make sure that areas next to printers and photocopiers are well-ventilated. Individuals may benefit from a separate working area that is removed from pollutants (such as one far away from printers, photocopiers, and chemical use), has no carpeting, and is equipped with an air purifier. Individuals with MCS need to be notified in advance of any renovations taking place. Employers should use least-toxic materials (such as low-VOC paint) for renovation projects. Accommodations may include the ability to work from home until renovated areas no longer emit chemicals into the air, guided by individual access needs.

How to establish a scent/fragrance-free policy

A scent/fragrance-free policy must be initiated and supported by the workplace head-of-staff or management. It should include a starting date, and there should be a person designated to oversee it.

  • Consult with the person who experiences disability. He/she/they are the best source of information on how chemical sensitivities and air quality create access barriers, as well as how to accommodate their specific needs.
  • Create an educational plan consisting of workshops, posters and informational materials that informs employees about the health and disability impacts of fragrances and chemicals, as well as why the policy is required.
  • Include a list of scent/fragrance-free products (personal care, laundry, and cleaning) and where they can be purchased. Make sure the products on your list are truly unscented, as some products advertised as scent/fragrance-free may contain odour-masking chemicals.
  • Develop a list of scent/fragrance-free, least-toxic, products for all uses and requirements in the workplace.
  • Give employees adequate notice and the option to work from home during renovations.
  • Circulate both lists via email, your website, and notice boards, and make product ingredient information such as material safety data sheets (MSDS) available.
  • Ensure adequate signage and posters in key areas.
  • Actively inform all employees and users of the workspace, including visitors, of the scent/fragrance-free. In healthcare settings, this includes incoming patients and staff.
  • Give the scent/fragrance-free policy to visitors making appointments, to participants in meetings or conferences, and to prospective employees. Include a short statement about your scent/fragrance-free policy on office stationery.
  • Take all concerns about the policy seriously. Take the time to remind employees and visitors that the policy is for disability reasons and that reducing scent/fragrance/chemical use to personal likes or dislikes/individual preferences is ableist (ableism is the discrimination against those who experience disabilities in favour of environments that may work for able-bodied people). Not taking scent/fragrance-free policies, as well as chemical use, seriously is ableist because it actively creates access barriers for others.
  • Ask for feedback, listen to concerns, and help find solutions to any problems that might arise. This may include formal mediation (as needed), support given to employees or visitors surrounding navigation and implementation of the policy, and disability advocacy.

How to ask for accommodation

If possible, initiate a conversation or meeting with the person in charge of implementing accommodations directly, (for example, your employer) and explain your access needs. Bringing up peanut allergies may be a useful analogy to support others in understanding the impact of chemical products and air quality as barriers to your functioning and participation in the workplace environment.

Follow up with a letter or email detailing your request. Remind your employer of their obligation to accommodate under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights. Keep a written record of your communications.

If you belong to a union, your union representative can help you negotiate accommodation solutions in the workplace.

If possible, bring a witness or advocate with you when negotiating verbally, and follow up with meeting minutes sent to all parties.

When it is not possible to reach an arrangement with your employer that meaningfully addresses your access needs, you may need to seek legal advice or legal representation.

Resources that can help you:

Environmental Health Association of Québec
Canadian Human Rights Commission Policy
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)