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For Some Workers, Bad Smells in the Office Are More Than Just Annoying

One of the first offices I worked in had a sign by the floor microwave: "No fish!," it said. While I laughed this off at the time as being a bit picky, it wasn't until I worked close to another office's kitchen that I realized how pervasive reheated mahi-mahi could be. While it may not seem like a little warmed salmon, heavily splashed Chanel No. 5, or post-vacation durian could mean that much, it's no laughing matter. A smell issue could harm workers and even land an employer in legal hot water if they don't think a stink means a thing.

One of the first offices I worked in had a sign by the floor microwave: “No fish!,” it said. While I laughed this off at the time as being a bit picky, it wasn’t until I worked close to another office’s kitchen that I realized how pervasive reheated mahi-mahi could be. While it may not seem like a little warmed salmon, heavily splashed Chanel No. 5, or post-vacation durian could mean that much, it’s no laughing matter. A smell issue could harm workers and even land an employer in legal hot water if they don’t think a stink means a thing.

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(Photo Credit: mcfarlandmo/Flickr)

Don’t Laugh

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The worst thing a manager can do when workers complain about some kind of smell is to laugh it off, even if it’s meant as a tension cutter. Fragrance allergies are no joke; for sufferers, a splash of perfume or a scented hand lotion could cause sneezing, headaches, hives, and a host of other unpleasant and potentially dangerous physical complaints. On the less-altruistic side, there’s also the possibility that ignoring an employee’s requests for a fragrance-free environment could result in a lawsuit against the company.

As an employee, you can bring up a workplace full of perfume, body odor, cooking smells from the lunchroom (or the grill downstairs), construction smells, or just about any odor that creates a problem in the workplace. Just because your boss “isn’t bothered by it” doesn’t mean it’s not a serious issue for you.

Potential “No-Smell” Policies

Many workplaces opt for a “fragrance-free” environment that helps those with allergies to perfumes. Policies like these might also boost productivity for non-allergic folks; workers who spend most of their time moving workstations to get some air or gossiping about just who is dousing themselves in coconut lotion aren’t getting much done.

Of course, you don’t need a policy in place to start being a good neighbor and co-worker. Whether it’s a few extra spritzes of Axe body spray or too much strawberry shampoo, smells can mean a lot more to those you work beside. Think about that before you decide to opt for that new perfume in the morning, and head off any potential problems at work by abstaining. Keep your signature fragrance for the weekends, when you’re free to smell how you please.

Health Hazards

Even the CDC has reasons to warn workplaces on odors. Many odors can be hazardous to your health, even if you don’t suffer from fragrance allergies. Smelly carpet, paint, and even nearby dumpsters can become problems for employees. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) even suggests that strange or very unpleasant new odors could be a sign of a serious issue like a chemical spill.

When in doubt, bring news of a bad smell to the attention of your office manager or HR head. They’re the best ones to determine who dealt it.

Tell Us What You Think

Has a foul smell ever made your workplace terrible? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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We have a very large garbage can at the intersection of three office doors. A couple of coworkers like to eat bananas daily, and they throw away the skin without wrapping it in plastic or anything else to deal with the smell. Every time anyone has to throw something away, the over-ripe smell wafts into the offices. The people sitting nearest the door really get hit with it. Boss has been approached more than once, hasn’t done anything. The can is emptied only once a week. It’s rather unbelievable that the perpetrators nor the boss see anything wrong with us… Read more »

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Hi. Great article. I have recently started a new job in a medical faculty at a university and directly outside our office there is a terrible smell of perhaps a dead mouse. I have brought this to the attention of my manager many times and she has told me to ‘get use to it’ and saying ‘i can’t smell it’ . Last week she subtly hinted at letting me go, if i did not get use to the smell. I am at a loss what to do as i am vulnerable in my probationary period. I’ve only been at the… Read more »

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Essential oils are dangerous for me. They are highly concentrated in salicylates, a naturally occurring compound. Salicylates have caused me to go into anaphylaxis in the past. We have a co-worker who is fairly new who huffs essential oils like they’re a drug. She initially started by having them out in the open and our office, without asking us of course. I started breaking out in rashes, having breathing issues, my tongue burned, and became lethargic and stiff like I was drugged. I was very open with her about my allergy to them and told her she could not use… Read more »

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I have a co-worker who uses Essential Oils on her wrists, neck & earlobes – any place she can find to put it. The scents, while pleasant in very small doses, are extremely overwhelming and can be smelled down the hall. This co-worker is also constantly switching up the fragrances creating a sickening mashup of smells which is causing me to feel ill. Headaches and slight nausea are typical. Unfortunately this co-worker never asked anyone in the office if they minded (or at least not me and I sit right next to her). I’d rather go to this co-worker directly… Read more »

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