How losing your sense of smell due to COVID-19 can pose a threat to safety

On a road trip to Philadelphia last December, I volunteered to fill up the tank every time we stopped for gas. I wanted to practice doing it; where I am from in India, there are gas-station attendants who do the filling, so I wanted to get the hang of the US’s self-service system. At one such stop, I accidentally closed the fuel cap incorrectly, leaving the screw rings misaligned. It was bitterly cold outside, and I was in a hurry to get back into the warm car, which may have contributed to my oversight.

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Photo by Jean-christophe Gougeon on Unsplash

In any case, an error had been made. Once we pulled away from the gas station and got on the highway, our olfactory senses were greeted by the unmistakable smell of gas. At first, we thought it was coming from outside since the air conditioner was set to fresh air. But when the smell stuck around, we became concerned and pulled over to checked the gas tank, and that’s when we noticed the partially closed fuel cap and corrected the error.

It would be safe to say that if not for our sense of smell, this error would have gone unnoticed.

This is incident got me thinking about how the loss of smell and taste is a key symptom of COVID-19. When compared to the other symptoms and antecedents of COVID-19 such as shortness of breath, permanent lung scarring, high fever, and fatigue, losing your sense of smell might seem inconsequential.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Granted, it does affect your quality of life and your feeling of connection to your environment, but your safety? Surely not. However, incidents like the one I experienced aren’t a rarity. We rely constantly on our sense of smell. In many cases, a jarring smell is one of the first warning signs we receive about an impending danger, such as leaving the gas on. When the loss of smell leads to safety issues in such cases, system design and Human Factors psychology are best positioned to offer solutions.

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Photo by Damon Lam on Unsplash

Considering the collective and unprecedented COVID-19 related research going on in fields like mental health and medicine, I wondered if Human Factors research had touched upon safety issues arising from the loss of the sense of smell.

I came across one such paper published in the ‘Human Factors’ journal which brilliantly outlined some problems and suggested solutions that Human Factors professionals could implement. I have outlined them in a more consumable form below:

1. Problem: Decreased sensitivity to the smell of smoke

Solution: Increase the frequency of low battery reminders and make them more salient in smoke alarms because they are the only way a person can be warned in time to avert the danger from a fire.

2. Problem: Not being able to rely on smell to test if food is spoilt

Solution: Design packaging such that there is a visual change when food gets spoilt (similar to how litmus paper changes color depending on the pH value of a compound) or, at the very least, make the expiration dates more visually salient.

3. Problem: The sense of smell may be integral to using/operating certain human-machine systems

Solution: To ensure that a potential fault doesn’t go undetected, usability testing samples must include those who have lost their sense of smell.

4. Problem: Current employees who have lost their sense of smell in work environments where the sense of smell is important for task performance (e.g. gas line maintenance, food production)

Solution: Incorporation of objective olfactory sense measures to evaluate returning employees’ sense of smell.

5. Problem: The sense of smell is the first indication that a baby has soiled a diaper

Solution: Visual indicators to remind that a change is required.

6. Problem: An electrical device may be overheating and the problem may not be detected.

Solution: Engineering visual or auditory alarms for such malfunctions which are normally detected by smell.

7. Problem: A surgeon without the sense of smell, performing procedures such as cauterization or skin grafting may not realize that they are burning tissue

Solution: Again, visual or auditory indicators on surgical devices may be needed to provide alternate forms of warning.

8. Problem: Homeowners may leave the gas on by accident and not realize it

Solution: Visual indicators should be placed on gas stoves indicating when they are releasing gas and electronic gas detectors should be made standard in homes.

Many of you may have already thought about these issues and for those of you who hadn’t, I hope this article made you do so. The point I seek to highlight is that all those affected by these problems must take note:

People who have lost their sense of smell due to COVID-19 — you must be cognizant of potential ways in which your safety might be compromised.

Medical practitioners — you must make sure that COVID-19 patients are made aware of the potential threats.

System designers and human factors professionals — you must strive to make your products and systems more inclusive of people who don’t have their sense of smell.

And finally, asymptomatic individuals and COVID-free people — we must not take our sense of smell for granted!

Aviation Geek | Grad student — writing to take a break from writing | Making Human Factors accessible one article at a time

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