Does this article stink? Or more precisely, does this page have an odor to it? Put it close to your nose and take a deep sniff. Smell anything? Most vapors and gases, including solid materials that may have some volatile fraction, such as this magazine's pages, have an odor. Modern man doesn't tend to link survival with odors. But smell was early humans' most important sense. It drew mates to each other, helped humans avoid predators, and allowed them to detect suitable food. Survival back then depended on a keen sense of smell. So does survival in the modern workplace. Consider the role odors play in injury and illness prevention: A whiff of smoke may alert us to a fire; smelling a solvent through a respirator may tell us the equipment is ineffective. We are also obligated by OSHA regulations, such as hazard communication, to train employees to detect the release of hazardous chemicals by detecting odors.

Training workers to smell

Training employees to detect chemical odors must be a hands-on, or should I say, a nose-on affair. Hazcomm training should include having employees smell, with due precautions, the chemicals they are expected to detect. Odor thresholds, individual sensitivities, olfactory fatigue and other associated concepts must be explained and, where practical, demonstrated. Most important, however, is how employees are told of the hazards associated with each chemical they smell. A human can detect over 10,000 different chemicals. The strength of the odor can also help estimate how much of the chemical is in the air. You can train yourself to better identify odors and predict concentrations. The Olfactory Research Fund, Ltd. offers these techniques to improve your sense of smell:

Train your mind, not your nose: Most odors are perceived at an unconscious level. Musicians do not necessarily hear more music but are more conscious of the content of what is heard. They train their minds, not their ears.

Smell often, but not a lot: Because our noses fatigue easily, it is far better to smell in moderation, pause, then smell again. With different odors, you can smell alternately and this will increase the perception of the differences between odors. When you wish to refresh your nose, blow a small amount of fresh air rapidly through your nose, back and forth for a few moments and then return to smelling.

Whenever exposure monitoring is conducted, remember the properties of the odor along with any environmental variables. Continue to match exposure results with your memory of the odor. With practice you can predict which and how much of the chemicals may be present.

Future challenges

For the future, rapid synthetic chemical development is creating new and more complex odors that will be difficult to keep abreast of. Scientists are experimenting with mixing pure distinctively odored chemicals with chemicals that can mask and neutralize smells that workers might complain about. Doing so, however, could eliminate the "warning property" of the chemical.

Researchers are also looking at how odors affect emotions, moods and actions. Toward this end, some businesses are developing "corporate smells"-odors distinctive to their businesses that some say might become as important to recognizing a company as sight and sound are today. Some employers intentionally introduce odors into the workplace to create moods. Japanese factories, for instance, have been known to emit fragrances into the work environment to increase productivity.