The overpowering scent of the public service

A former public servant rendered incapable of working by her colleagues' perfumes and aftershaves has lost a bid for compensation.

After suffering years of discomfort, the Department of Human Services worker was eventually overpowered by her colleagues' cosmetics in February 2012 at a customer services centre in Orange, NSW, and has not returned to work since.

In late 2011, the scent of her fellow public servants hit the Customer Services Officer so hard she had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance suffering from nausea, disorientation, headaches, dizziness and chest pain.

The federal government accepts that it cannot send the 61-year-old back to work in an office, without a general agreement of the rest of workforce not to wear scented cosmetics, but has refused to pay her compensation for permanent impairment.

She has an accepted workplace insurance claim for 'aggravation of multiple chemical sensitivity' and sought further payments for compensation for permanent impairment and non-economic loss.

But the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has rejected the latest claim after it found the woman failed to clear the legal hurdle for her condition to be accepted as a "whole of person impairment".


She attributed her condition to 'constant exposure to perfumes/oils and chemicals', a condition she first noticed in about 1995.

She said things became slightly worse between the mid-1990s and 2006, but in late 2011 to early 2012, she really began to suffer.

The woman and her colleagues moved into a new air-conditioned and sealed building in late 2011 in the NSW central west town and she was hit by residual smells of new carpet, fittings, paint and glue, as well as perfumes.

The customer services team previously worked in an old building with separate rooms, where the windows could be opened and her close colleagues had agreed not to wear perfumes.

But the new offices were open-plan, there was no general agreement not to take it easy on the scents and the woman says the exposure to perfumes there were the principal trigger for her condition.

She logged six incident reports between 24 October 2011 and 31 January 2012, including the trip to hospital, reporting adverse reactions to chemicals and perfumes at work.

She was medically retired from the Australian Public Service in February 2013.

But to qualify as permanently impaired, a worker must prove a 10-per-cent "whole-of-person" disability caused by work factors.

Senior Tribunal Member Robin Creyke found that exposure to some chemicals outside of work contributed to a "reactive" condition and that the former public servant did not meet the threshold for more compensations

"... The evidence indicates that at least some of the symptoms included in [her] diary would have arisen from contact with volatile chemicals outside the workplace, the Tribunal is not satisfied that [her] whole person impairment meets the minimum level of ten percent," Ms Creyke wrote.