Ex-Air Corps captain awarded €117,800 over gender discrimination

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has ordered the Minister for Defence to pay €117,814 in compensation to a former female captain in the Air Corps.

WRC adjudication officer, Stephen Bonnlander has made the maximum possible compensation after finding Yvonne O’Rourke was victim to gender discrimination arising from “an unacceptable systematic failure” in the Defence Forces.

After a seven-year battle by Ms O’Rourke, Mr Bonnlander found she was discriminated against on gender grounds in her efforts to secure promotion.

Based at Baldonnell Aerodrome, Ms O’Rourke asserted the Defence Forces discriminated against her on the ground of her gender, in that it treated two maternity leave absences from work as equivalent to the sick absence of a male officer, and consequently gave her a poor performance rating.

The poor rating for 2010 and 2011 impacted on Ms O’Rourke’s ability to go on a mandatory training course which was required to advance to the rank of commander.

Chief Commissioner of the IHREC, Sinead Gibney stated

That Yvonne O’Rourke was treated by the Defence Forces “as if she were a man who had been on long-term sick leave rather than as a pregnant woman”.

By the time Ms O’Rourke was approved by the general officer commanding of the Air Corps to attend the Junior Command and Staff Course (JCSC), her health had deteriorated to the point that she was unable to take up the opportunity and was later retired from the Defence Forces on the grounds of ill health in July 2016.

In a hard-hitting ruling, Mr Bonnlander stated “It beggars belief that women should have been serving in the Irish Defence Forces for decades, without the Forces’ systems and instruction ever having been appropriately updated to ensure they reflect anti-discrimination law as it applies to pregnancy and maternity”.

The hearing at the WRC for Ms O’Rourke’s case against the Minister for Defence spanned six days.

In the long-running action, Ms O’Rourke was represented by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), which instructed a senior and junior counsel in the case.

Speaking today, Ms O’Rourke stated:

“I hope that what has been achieved in this outcome and  determination will shine some light on the areas of darkness that needed to be revealed within the Irish Defence Forces. I hope that this small victory will somewhat; smooth the path, pave the way forward, and inspire those left behind, to have their difficulties, hurts, issues and problems of; discrimination, victimisation, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment heard and subsequently addressed in a more expedient fashion than my seven-year struggle.”

Read full report on Irish Times website below

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 08/12/20 – How many Whistle-blowers is the Irish Air Corps currently trying to sack using medical boards?

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 313

To ask the Minister for Defence the number of whistle-blowers the Defence Forces is currently attempting to dismiss using medical boarding procedures; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
[41233/20]

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The term “whistle-blower” is often used to describe a person who discloses relevant information in relation to relevant wrongdoings, as set out in the Protected Disclosures Act 2014. A person whose information satisfies the criteria set out in the Act also has the benefit of the protections set out in the Act such as protection of identity and protection against penalisation.

Subject to exceptions, a person to whom a protected disclosure is made, and any person to whom a protected disclosure is referred in the performance of that person’s duties, shall not disclose to another person any information that might identify the person by whom the protected disclosure was made.

The making of a protected disclosure does not necessarily prevent the conduct of any other statutory procedure. Any member of the Defence Forces who feels that s/he has been penalised or threatened with penalisation for making a protected disclosure has the right to make a complaint to the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces.

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The Irish Air Corps routinely use the Medical Boarding process as a HR tool to dismiss those they perceive as “troublemakers”.

It is interesting to note that Minister Simon Coveney does not use this opportunity to deny that whistle-blowers’ are sacked from the Air Corps using the medical boarding process. 

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Five years on from protected disclosures Air Corps whistleblowers still ‘waiting for justice’

IT IS NOW five years since former members of the Air Corps submitted protected disclosures detailing allegations that they became unwell due to their exposure to dangerous chemicals at Baldonnel Airfield.

Since then, whistleblower Gavin Tobin and several of his colleagues have been trying to have their full case heard in the courts. Tobin is currently involved in litigation against the State. That remains in the discovery phase as Tobin waits for more files to be handed over.

Last July (2019), a five-panel Supreme Court hearing unanimously found in favour of Tobin, meaning the State must now disclose documents outlining any chemicals that Tobin may have been exposed to while working at the airfield between 1990 and 1999.

Tobin has been continuing to log what he has described as the untimely deaths of his colleagues. Of the 85 deaths he has cited, five relate to the 1980s seven to the 1990s and the rest have taken place since 2000.

Tobin also contacted then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2017, when Varadkar also held the Defence portfolio. Tobin said: “Subsequent protected disclosures to Varadkar were either ignored or forwarded to then Junior Minister Paul Kehoe.

“Absolutely nothing has been done to provide targeted healthcare for exposed personnel since this date despite damning findings by the HSA which the Department of Defence continue to try to downplay.”

The average age of death of the cases recorded by Tobin stands at 50 years old. Tobin believes the number of deaths from chemical exposure could be as high as 100.

The 2016 HSA report warned the Air Corps it could face prosecution if it did not “comply with advice and relevant legal requirements” about how hazardous substances were managed, among other safety matters.

The HSA’s report stated immediate attention was needed at Baldonnel and that protective equipment must be made available to staff. The necessary equipment should include protective gear for eyes and hands, as well as respirators to protect against inhalation of toxic fumes.

The whistle-blowers in this case alleges there was a disregard for the safety of young Air Corps members. According to an online resource created for those who believe they were affected by the chemical exposure, there was:

  • No meaningful chemical risk assessments.
  • No risk specific health surveillance
  • No Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) issued
  • No chemical health and safety training whatsoever
  • No reporting of health and safety incidents
  • No follow up of unusual illnesses by medical personnel
  • Ignoring dangerous air quality reports
  • Personnel doused in toxic chemicals as pranks (hazing) incidents
  • Highly toxic chemicals disposed of onsite in an unsafe manner

Read full article on The Journal website below…

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To be clear, the original Protected Disclosure made in November 2015 was to make Minister Simon Coveney aware that chemical health & safety at the Irish Air Corps was completely sub standard and an ongoing threat to the health of the men & women who worked there & their families. 

The appalling working conditions that Tobin alleges harmed his health in the 1990s still prevailed in 2015. Since his Protected Disclosure his and other whistle-blower allegations of poor chemical health & safety work practices have been vindicated by both the Health & Safety Authority and the “Independent Third Party Investigator” appointed by Minister Paul Kehoe. 

The priorities of the Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors are firstly to prevent further unnecessary loss of life amongst survivors and secondly to improve the quality of life of survivors by reducing unnecessary suffering. Both the Royal Australian Air Force & the Armed forces of the Netherlands have offered templates as to how to approach unfortunate workplace chemical exposure issues with competence, fairness, justice & urgency.

At no point have ACCAS nor any of the whistle-blowers sought any legal intervention into ongoing court cases. 

Delay – Deny – Die

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 09/12/20 – Why is death in service rate of (smaller) Irish Air Corps higher than (larger) Naval Service

Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)

QUESTION NO: 94

To ask the Minister for Defence the reason the rate of death in service of Air Corps personnel over the past 20 years is approximately twice the rate of death of that of Naval Service personnel when the figures are adjusted for service strength; if he and or his predecessors have ever commissioned an analysis of Defence Force personnel death rates and causes of death while in a post service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42242/20]

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The total deaths in service for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service for the past 20 years as of 31 October is 204, 21 and 16 respectively.

The Deputy will be aware that there is ongoing litigation in relation to allegations regarding the use of certain chemicals in the Air Corps. As the matter is subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment on any speculation which may impact on such litigation.

*****

Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)

QUESTION NO: 95


To ask the Minister for Defence the breakdown of Air Corps personnel deaths by categories of non-accidental death and accidental death while in service for the past 20 years to date. [42243/20]

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The total deaths in service for the Air Corps since 2000 as of 30 November 2020 is 21.

The Military Authorities have advised that six of those deaths relate to accidents, four of which occurred while the personnel in question were on duty. Fifteen deaths were non-accident related.

*****

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 24/11/20 – No plans to offer medical cards to retired Defence Forces personnel

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 897

To ask the Minister for Health his plans to carry out a full health audit of former members of all branches of the Defence Forces with a view to extending a full medical card to all retired Defence Forces members. [38583/20]

Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)

Under the provisions of the Health Act 1970 (as amended), eligibility for health services in Ireland is based primarily on residency and means. The Act provides that persons who are unable, without undue hardship, to arrange GP services for themselves and dependents can qualify for full eligibility (a medical card). The HSE awards medical cards in accordance with the Health Act and assesses applicants on the overall financial situation of the applicant and his or her spouse or dependent.

Every effort is made by the HSE, within the framework of the legislation, to support applicants in applying for a medical card and, in particular, to take full account of any difficult circumstances in the case of applicants who may be in excess of the income guidelines. Social and medical issues are also considered when determining whether undue hardship exists for an individual accessing general practitioner or other medical services and to that end, the HSE may exercise discretion and grant a medical card where an applicant exceeds his or her income threshold. Currently, more than 32% of the population hold eligibility for a medical card.

All persons who are ordinarily resident in the state can apply to the HSE to be determined whether eligible for a medical card.

*****

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 24/11/20 – No plans by Minister Coveney to audit health of Irish Air Corps personnel despite proven Health & Safety failings

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 464

To ask the Minister for Defence his plans to carry out a full health audit of serving members of the Air Corps. [38582/20]

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

A comprehensive range of primary and secondary medical services are provided to all members of the Permanent Defence Force. This is to ensure that personnel are medically fit to undertake the duties assigned to them, and to treat any medical conditions arising which would inhibit their capacity to undertake such duties. This includes an annual medical examination which comprises a review of the individual’s medical history and a full physical examination.

*****

Air Corps personnel have been badly served by the Medical Corps

  • Treated chemically injured personnel as malingerers.
  • Refused to refer injured personnel for specialised consultant care for complex illnesses.
  • Used the medical boarding system as a “HR resolution tool” to dismiss chemically injured personnel.
  • Disallowed the testimony of expert medical consultants at such medical boards used to dismiss even whistleblowers.
  • Admonished chemically injured personnel for using civilian doctors even sending  military ambulances to retrieve sick personnel from their homes.
  • Attempted to access medical records of chemically injured personnel in civilian hospitals without their consent.

It must be said that the negligence of engineering officers within the Formation Safety Office hindered the work of doctors on the ground at Baldonnel and wider afield. 

If the FSO had carried out chemical risk assessments, conducted with “proper vigor” by competent & trained personnel, they would in many instances have required risk specific health surveillance. Risks specific health surveillance would have given medics a “heads up” regarding symptoms of “at risk” illnesses.  This should in turn have lead to annual medical assessments more tailored to these risks than the “standard” annual medical that all members of the Defence Forces undergo. 

DELAY – DENY – DIE

20 Air Corps personnel died prematurely since whistleblower contacted Varadkar in 2017, Dáil hears

*****

19 men and 1 woman have died since the Varadkar was approached for help. Subsequent protected disclosures to Varadkar were either ignored or forwarded to then Junior Minister Paul Kehoe.

Absolutely nothing has been done to provide targeted healthcare for  exposed personnel since this date despite damning findings by the HSA which the Department of Defence continue to try to downplay. 

Delay – Deny – Die

Dáil Éireann – Motion on Confidence in Tánaiste Leo Varadkar – 10th November 2020

Róisín Shorthall (Social Democrats)

The shortened version of the Róisín Shorthall T.D. (Social Democrats) contribution on the Motion on Confidence in Tánaiste & Minister for Enterprise , Trade & Employment, Leo Varadkar, T.D.

Deputy Shorthall raises the hypocrisy of Leo Varadkar who used the cabinet rule-book as an excuse to not assist a former Air Corps member seeking medical help to reduce the *untimely deaths of #IrishAirCorps personnel due to unprotected workplace chemical exposure at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

A similar chemical exposure tragedy in the Royal Australian Air Force saw exposed personnel suffer cancer rates up to 41% greater than a control group. But due to awareness, vigilance, screening and other coordinated medical interventions they were able to turn a greater risk of death & illness into 27% lower mortality than the average Australian of the same age. A similar chemical exposure tragedy has also occurred in the armed services of the Netherlands and their first act was to help survivors.

In Ireland Fine Gael has spent the past half decade denying any help whatsoever to exposed Air Corps personnel nor even admitting that a problem exists.

This is despite the fact that both the HSA, and the DoD appointed independent investigator, both vindicated the claims of three whistle-blowers on this issue with the HSA going as far as to threaten legal action against the Air Corps unless they complied with specific instructions from health & safety inspectors.

*****

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 85 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980
  • 72 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 48 of these deaths have occurred since 2010

Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.

The three leading causes of death

  • 37% of deaths are from cancer
  • 30% deaths are from cardiac
  • At least 18% of deaths are from suicide

*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 51 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths nor murder.

Delay – Deny – Die

85 Untimely deaths recorded in Irish Air Corps toxic chemical exposure tragedy

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 85 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980 
  • 72 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 48 of these deaths have occurred since 2010
Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.
 

3 most significant causes of death

  • 37% of deaths are from  cancer
  • 30% deaths are from cardiac
  • At least 18% of deaths are from suicide
*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 51 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths nor murder.

83 Untimely deaths recorded in Irish Air Corps toxic chemical exposure tragedy

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 83 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980 
  • 70 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 46 of these deaths have occurred since 2010
Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.
 

3 most significant causes of death

  • 37% of deaths are from  cancer
  • 30% deaths are from cardiac
  • At least 18% of deaths are from suicide
*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 51 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths nor murder.