By Sam Myat San

I have always taken my sense of smell for granted. I used to imagine that losing one’s sight or hearing would be debilitating but that the olfactory sense was dispensable. That was until I met with a young man called Pugalenthy Karthikeyan (or Karthi, as he prefers to be called) who will never enjoy the scent of a flower or the aroma of a delicious meal.

And for Karthi, losing his sense of smell is a matter of life and death.

Karthi is a young man of 28, with a wife and a one year old son. He is the sole bread-winner for his immediate family as well as his elderly parents and an intellectually-disabled brother. He has been working in Singapore for the last five years without any major incidents until the events of 19 February, 2015.

Karthi’s job involves the spraying liquid cellulose insulation onto walls and ceilings. On that fateful day, he was working on a 4 metre-high platform when his supervisor asked Karthi to follow him by jumping across to another platform. During the jump, Karthi fell.

He regained consciousness after spending 4 days in Mount Alvernia Hospital’s intensive care unit, with the doctors focusing on what he described as “brain-blood leakage.” When the wound on his head has healed however, he noticed that he was no longer able to smell anything. He bitterly complained that he “smell anything, no understand.” The doctors’ diagnosis was that this loss of smell was permanent. Karthi noted with anguish that he could “smell nothing… lifelong cannot use.”

Karthi was distraught, not just because the loss of his sense of smell would affect his daily quality of life. He was anguished that he would no longer be able to use it to warn him of potential dangers in his line of work. “Gas leak, can’t smell,” he says. “How safety?”

Since his work involves the use of sprays and chemicals, Karthi is even more concerned about the possibility of inhaling dangerous fumes. However, his medical certificate would soon expire and his employer has been asking him to “come work.”

Worse news were to come. Although the expenses for his head wound had been borne by the employer, no compensation has been provided for the permanent loss of his sense of smell. Under the Workplace Injury Compensation Act (WICA), workers can make a claim for “Permanent Incapacity.” However, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has ruled that Karthi’s loss of smell does not merit such a claim. As Karthi himself dejectedly puts it, there was “zero points,” for him and for the investigation into this claim.

Speaking for TWC2, Alex Au highlighted Karthi’s case as a “shortcoming in the injury claims framework. Karthi is the example of a person whose loss of smell would make him vulnerable to being exposed to dangerous chemicals and fumes. TWC2 would like to see MOM amend the compensation framework to account for such deficits, rather than for the workers in similar situations having to engage lawyers at their own expense to sue their employers.”

Karthi will now seek compensation through a civil law suit. The outcome is uncertain. He feels very much alone in this fight, without even his family to give him encouragement and support. He had decided against sharing his news with them to spare them the worry and heartache. “I don’t inform,” he says, “because praying many, many; bad for them worry.”