Sensitive employee raises stink over workplace scents

Employee became irate and walked off the job after detecting someone wearing a scent, which was against company policy designed to accommodate his sensitivity
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 06/02/2014

This instalment of You Make the Call features an employee with sensitivity to scents who walked off the job after smelling perfume in the workplace.

Greg Brownlie was a machine operator for Federal-Mogul Windsor, an auto parts manufacturer in Windsor, Ont. Brownlie was hired in 1999 and in early 2010 he informed Federal-Mogul he had asthma that was aggravated by scents in the workplace. It was thought perfumes worn by female employees made Brownlie’s asthmas worse, so the company adopted a policy banning perfume and cologne in the plant.

In February 2011, an employee filed a harassment complaint against Brownlie, complaining he had directed fans at her and said she was wearing perfume. The employee said she was only chewing bubble gum and a company investigation confirmed there was no perfume.

Soon after, Brownlie provided a doctor’s note that confirmed it was necessary for him to work in a scent-free environment. Following this note, Federal-Mogul changed its policy to prohibit any scented products and posted it at the front entrance, as well as elsewhere in the plant. Special scent-free products were also purchased for a washroom Brownlie used.

In October 2012, Brownlie became disruptive when he felt a representative for a company that supplies the first aid kits and eye wash stations was wearing perfume and violated the scent free policy. Federal-Mogul couldn’t find any evidence of employees breaching the scent policy and it felt Brownlie was making false accusations. He was told to stop and Brownlie responded by saying his human rights were being violated.

A protocol was developed where Brownlie would notify the production manager if he detected a scent that bothered him. The company would investigate and Brownlie would remain at his workstation and use fans that were in the area. This was particularly important because there were some scents in the plant from things such as propane, coolant and cleaning supplies and it wasn’t certain what scents could trigger Brownlie’s asthma.

On Nov. 21, 2012, Brownlie told the production manager the same representative was wearing perfume. He was upset and said the HR manager “didn’t do her job.”

The production manager talked to the representative and she denied she was wearing perfume. She said the HR manager had spoken to her about hand cream she was wearing — though no scent was detected — and she wouldn’t wear it next time. The production manager didn’t smell anything.

Brownlie became angry and said the company didn’t care about him or his health. The production manager was surprised Brownlie was so angry, but Brownlie got his coat, said he was calling the union, and stormed off. The manager noted the fans in Brownlie’s area were off.

After Brownlie left, the manager reported 90 minutes of production time was lost from the end of Brownlie’s shift and the beginning of the next one.

A meeting was held the next day and Brownlie didn’t offer any explanation for not following the protocol and instead said it was everyone’s fault. The HR manager testified Brownlie appeared “cocky and arrogant.” Three employees reported they had smelled a scent coming from the medical supply representative, while four others and the managers couldn’t detect anything.

Management determined this was an example of a false accusation by Brownlie. Since he showed no remorse and his attitude wasn’t good, Federal-Mogul decided to dismiss Brownlie for making false accusations, insubordination, not following protocol and leaving his workstation.

You Make the Call

Did the company have just cause for dismissal?
Was dismissal an inappropriate response?

If you said dismissal was inappropriate, you’re right. The arbitrator noted that it was “difficult, if not impossible” to ensure the workplace was completely scent-free in “a scented world,” though Federal-Mogul attempted to accommodate Brownlie by banning scents as much as it could.

Noting that some people can smell things others can’t, the arbitrator found the fact that three employees in addition to Brownlie claimed to have smelled something was enough to conclude Brownlie did not make a false accusation.

However, the arbitrator also found Brownlie’s conduct when he became angry at management was “excessive and inappropriate.”

It was also clear he didn’t follow the established protocol and didn’t try to remedy the situation by turning on a fan. The concern an asthmatic might have over the potential of having an attack once a scent is detected could explain why Brownlie was agitated, but was not an excuse to act the way he did.

As for the production loss, it only amounted to 20 minutes at the end of Brownlie’s shift, and there was no explanation as to why it affected the beginning of the next shift, said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator found there wasn’t just cause for dismissal. Federal-Mogul was ordered to reinstate Brownlie with a three-week unpaid suspension. However, because Brownlie’s actions “contributed significantly to this dispute,” Federal-Mogul wasn’t required to compensate Brownlie for lost pay since the dismissal.

For more information see:

Federal Mogul Windsor Ltd. and CAW, Local 195 (Brownlie), Re, 2013 CarswellOnt 4966 (Ont. Arb.).