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By Marcus Hoy
Oct. 5—A Norwegian hotel chain's use of a so-called “signature scent” did not amount to discrimination against sufferers of multi chemical sensitivity (MCI), Norway's Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman held in a recent decision. The ombudsman found that the Clarion hotel chain's policy of turning off its fragrance generators upon request was sufficient to comply with existing anti-discrimination legislation.
The use of signature scents is a growing trend among hoteliers and retailers. Diffuser systems introduce the scents—floral, citrus, vanilla, musk—into the ambient air to establish a mood or create a sensory identity with the business in the mind of a guest or customer. The experience can be less than pleasant, however, for people with scent sensitivity.
FDMI, a group representing MCI sufferers, claimed that the use of the fragrance in public areas of Clarion hotels amounted to discrimination against both employees and hotel guests who suffer from the condition. In its complaint, the organization pointed to research suggesting that people with allergies, respiratory diseases and migraines could also be affected. As a result of the practice, areas of the hotels had become “completely inaccessible” to some of its members, FDMI said, and even when the fragrance generator was turned off the scent “lingered in walls and fabrics.”
Nordic Choice Hotels group, which operates the Clarion chain, defended the practice by stating that all scents it used were certified as safe and hypoallergenic by the International Fragrance Association, a global industry body. When complaints were received about the use of the fragrance, company policy was to shut down the system, which the hotel chain considered sufficient under existing discrimination legislation.
The ombudsman considered whether the use of the scent could be considered illegal under Norway's Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act (2008/42), which prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of disability, and the Planning and Building Act (2008/71), which sets general building standards including ventilation requirements. Clarion violated neither of these laws, the ombudsman concluded.
The ombudsman noted that the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act allows disparate treatment if it is necessary to achieve a legitimate aim and does not have a disproportionately negative impact on those affected. According to the ombudsman, the fact that the fragrance could be turned off on request meant that any negative effect was not disproportionate. It was the responsibility of individuals who believed themselves negatively affected by the scenting practice to inform the hotel. If they did not, they could not be said to be discriminated against. The vast majority of affected individuals would have their needs met by asking the hotel to turn off the scent, the ombudsman found.
The ruling did not specifically address the question of whether hotel employees suffering from MCI should have the right to refuse to work in affected areas.
The ombudsman also examined whether the scenting practice could be deemed legal under existing general building regulations. Under the Planning and Building Act, companies in both the public and the private sectors have a duty to ensure that workplaces and public spaces conform to generally accepted design standards insofar as this duty does not cause an undue burden on businesses. The ombudsman noted that no stipulations exist in the act related to scents and perfumes, and thus the practice could not be said to breach general design standards.
In a Sept. 26 statement, Jon Martin Larsen, head of communication at the Ombudsman's Office, told Bloomberg BNA that the case followed a similar 2011 complaint (09/770) that a mall had become inaccessible for people with MCI and hypersensitivity due to the use of scents. In that case, the ombudsman found that the ventilation system in the mall was operated in accordance with general building regulations and the complaint was outside the legal scope of the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act.
“In the ombudsman's opinion, a prohibition against legal products such as perfume should not be regulated through the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act,” Larsen said. “The ombudsman also referred to the Planning and Building Act, which does not regulate this area other than setting regulations for ventilation and air quality. Accommodation for people with chemical sensitivity and allergies should be regulated by parliament, not through the complaints procedure under the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act.”
Kenneth Hultgren, a spokesman for Nordic Choice Hotels, told Bloomberg BNA that his organization was in discussions with the Norwegian Asthma and Allergy Association to examine if it could do more to help sufferers.
“We have been extremely careful that the scents we use at our hotels are approved by IFRA, an international organization whose task is to blacklist allergenic products,” Hultgren said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Marcus Hoy in Copenhagen at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at firstname.lastname@example.org
The ombudsman's ruling is available in Norwegian here.
For more information on Norwegian HR law and regulation, see the Norway primer.
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