Safety and Sense of Smell-November 2019

Monthly Round Up of Important Ideas and Standards in
Industrial Hygiene and Safety

November 2019

THIS ISSUE: Safety and Sense of Smell

Although smell is one of the most important senses, it may not be a good indicator of health hazards. Workers may react to certain chemicals in the air before they reach harmful levels. Most occupational health standards can be calculated in parts per million while odors can be detected in parts per billion. Many substances in the environment can produce odors. Those odors can become a nuisance and bother people, causing temporary symptoms such as irritation, headache, and nausea. Other odors can be toxic and cause harmful health effects.

Everyone reacts to odors differently. Some people are more sensitive to environmental odors than others and may have symptoms even at a low concentration of the odor in air. In general, as concentration levels increase, more people will have symptoms. This will depend upon the substance, concentration, frequency of exposure, duration, age, and the health of the sensitive persons. The elderly and pregnant women may react at lower levels of exposure to odors.

Out in the workplace there are many processes that emit odors, some pleasant and some not. These may include caulks, sealants and coatings, paints, varnishes, or stains, cleaning agents, fuels and combustion products. Although most odors originate from the indoor environment, it is important to consider outside sources such as loading docks and neighboring facilities as additional contributors to odor.  In an office setting, sources of odors may also include carpeting, vinyl flooring, fabrics, furniture, air fresheners, and personal products such as perfumes and shampoo.

It is important that employee complaints regarding strong smelling processes not be ignored. Failure to do so may lead to an increase in complaints and dissatisfaction among employees. Such cases should be thoroughly investigated to determine if there is a health hazard and if so, better control exposures through elimination or substitution of chemicals, better maintenance, ventilation, and other controls as well as respiratory protection should be implemented. Even if no health hazard is found, it may be prudent to use similar controls to ensure employee comfort. An important source of information is “Odor Thresholds for Chemicals with Established Health Standards.”

Reducing employee exposures to odorous processes should be part of any chemical safety program. Investigating employee complaints and considering their concerns will lead to better controls of hazardous chemicals, along with increased trust and the well-being of workers

For more information on this topic and to discuss your company’s safety and industrial hygiene needs call OccuSafe at (214) 662-6005 or visit us at

OccuSafe Industrial Hygiene & Safety, Inc. provides skills and expertise to recognize, evaluate and control hazards and injuries in the areas of industrial hygiene, occupational safety and health. OccuSafe services companies of all sizes in a range of industries.

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