Dáil Éireann Written Answers 21/07/20 – No internal investigation into Irish Air Corps safety failures

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 353

To ask the Minister for Defence the actions he, his officials, the Chief of Staff Branch, Air Corps headquarters and or the State Claims Agency has taken to investigate the reasons for the non-compliance with the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts 1989 and 2005 at the Air Corps as stated by the Health and Safety Authority investigation which concluded after nearly three years in September 2018; and the steps taken at all levels to ensure the same failings to do not occur again in the Air Corps or the other branches of the Defence Forces. [16654/20]

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

I wish to assure the Deputy that the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority for me, my Department and the military authorities.

The Deputy will be aware that following three inspections at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel during 2016, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) issued a Report of Inspection to the Air Corps on 21 October, 2016. This report listed a number of advisory items for follow up, including the areas of risk assessments, safety statements and the provision and use of personal protective equipment.

The resultant Air Corps improvement plan confirmed the Air Corps’ full commitment to implementing improved safety measures that protect workers and ensure risks are as low as reasonably practicable.

The Air Corps improvement plan was implemented over eight phases, which the military authorities have advised are now complete, with phase eight, chemical awareness training and respiratory equipment training, being a continuous process.

The HSA has formally noted the high level of cooperation received and the considerable progress made to date by the Air Corps in this regard and their investigation is now closed.

A wide range of other measures are in place to ensure the health and safety of those serving in the Air Corps including monitoring exposure levels, conducting annual occupational medical screening, audits and training.

As the health and wellbeing of the men and women working in the Air Corps is a priority, the former Minister ensured that allegations relating to exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps in Baldonnel were independently reviewed. The independent report considered the Defence Forces health and safety regime, its current policy and its application and made a number of observations including in relation to documentation, health surveillance, and exposure to monitoring. The report was published on the Department’s website following its circulation to those who made disclosures.

The Air Corps and the wider Defence organisation is committed to complying with health and safety legislation. The organisation is proactive in ensuring that the best standards are adhered to in order to ensure that the risk to human health is as low as reasonably practicable.

The Deputy will appreciate that as litigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.

*****

It would have offered some small comfort to survivors of the Irish Air Corps chemical exposure tragedy if the recently re-appointed Minister Coveney had stated that the health & welfare of former personnel who served at Casement Aerodrome was also high priority for him, his Department and the military authorities but alas he chose not to do so at this time.

In terms of the “high level of cooperation” and the “full commitment to implementing improved safety measures” we must be very clear, the Health & Safety Authority threatened legal action if the Irish Air Corps did not comply with their instructions to improve conditions at Baldonnel.

To say there was a high level of cooperation is nonsense because the Air Corps had no choice but to comply. It is akin to a drunk driver crashing into a cafe & injuring scores of people then having a judge praise their cooperation once caught. 

Calling the orders of the HSA “advisory” is also a subtle attempt to downplay the seriousness of the problems discovered. But yes issuing PPE such as gloves, respirators, eye protection and also providing chemical safety training 28 years after they became mandatory is indeed “great progress”. 

But why was no disciplinary process started within the Defence Forces to hold to account those in management who presided over the decades long health & safety shambles?

Current Irish Air Corps compliance with workplace Health & Safety legislation is merely a veneer. There has been no change to safety culture and the Formation Safety Office is severely under resourced and with no dedicated H&S enforcement personnel.

Surprisingly, Vice Admiral Mellett told an Air Corps campaigner recently that it is difficult to change the safety culture of an organisation like the Air Corps. If only the Chief of Staff ahad powerful enforcement tool at his disposal such as military law to force such a culture change through quickly?

When there is a will there is a way, unfortunately decades on from the Army deafness scandal, the insular Defence Forces still don’t understand true Health & Safety from the bottom to the very top of the organisation and without proper understanding there is no will to change. 

In terms of the independent third party investigation it was neither independent nor third party. While there may have been initial attempts to find an independent third party specialist with toxicological or chemical experience, the last government eventually decided to appoint a recently retired barrister from the office of the Attorney General. This is an office of the state that is being sued by former Air Corps personnel so by no stretch of the imagination was this investigator independent nor third party, he was a retired civil servant still on the payroll of the state.

The so called “O’Toole report” is striking because the investigator states at the very start of the report that he was not qualified to undertake the investigation he was tasked to carry out.

My expertise is in the area of law and in carrying out this review it was my intention to examine compliance by the Air Corps with the relevant law and regulation. I was not in a position to consider the substances in use or any implications for human health arising from such use as these issues are outside my competence. The allegations concern both the current health and safety regime and compliance with that regime in a period stretching back over 20 years.

That Minister Coveney can point to this investigation as something worthwhile is stretching credibility. Essentially, the reason for appointing O’Toole was to slow down the  need for a political response to the problem and to ultimately justify doing zero to help save lives & reduce suffering of exposed Air Corps personnel. 

The “O’Toole Report” officially known as the “Report of the Independent Reviewer – Protected Disclosures – Air Corps” can be read in full via the link below.

https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/2250a7-report-of-the-independent-reviewer-protected-disclosures-air-corps/

The Risk Management Section of the State Claims Agency audited Irish Air Corps compliance with Health & Safety for a decade before the Health & Safety Authority were forced to intervene to stop the ongoing unprotected exposure of the workforce to carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants & toxic chemicals at Casement Aerodrome.

The HSA file was opened in January 2016 and was only closed in September 2018 but the “superb” health & safety performance of the Air Corps for the decade prior to HSA intervention allowed the State Claims Agency & NTMA to justify discretionary performance-related payments for their own personnel & senior management. 

The State Claims agency earned bonus pay for improvements in Air Corps health & safety risk profile while the very same same Air Corps continued to seriously harm serving personnel through lack of even the most basic health & safety measures.

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Protestors encourage voters not to give Paul Kehoe any preference votes

Minister with Responsibility for Defence Paul Kehoe is being targeted by former members of the Defence Forces who are trying to encourage voters in the forthcoming General Election not to vote for him.

The former Fine Gael chief whip has been a Fine Gael TD for County Wexford since he was first elected to the Dáil in May 2002 and a Minister of State for Defence since 2016.

In the last election, he secured a seat in the Dáil by beating his nearest rival Sinn Féin’s Johnny Mythen by just 52 votes.

Protestors are targeting his constituency offices and those of his party colleagues Michael D’Arcy.

They want to encourage people not to give Deputy Kehoe any preference votes, which helped get him elected the last time round.

The protesters are former members of the Air Corps who belong to the Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors (ACCAS) who claim they suffer illnesses due to their exposure to toxic chemicals while working for the Air Corps.

According to the group, Minister Kehoe has done little or nothing to help them get the medical support and health screening services they want.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

*****

Please view the honourable & fair demands of
Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors
 here.

Delay – Deny – Die

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 12/06/19 – Irish Air Corps – Health & Safety

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 75

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when he first received the report on the findings of the independent third party appointed to investigate protected disclosures relating to chemical exposure in the Air Corps; the steps he has taken to act on its findings since then; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24571/19]

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

Three written disclosures were made, in November and December 2015 and January 2016, under the provisions of section 8 of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, relating to alleged failings in the Defence Organisation in the area of Health and Safety. Legal advice was sought on how best to progress certain disclosures as elements related to matters which are the subject of the ongoing litigation. As the Deputy will be aware, the State Claims Agency is currently managing nine claims taken against the Minister for Defence, for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substance whilst working in the Air Corps in the period 1991 to 2006.

I appointed an independent reviewer to examine the disclosures. Following receipt of the report of the independent reviewer, which was submitted to me on 19 June, 2016, I invited the views of those who had made the disclosures and published the report. I also sent the report to the Chief of Staff for the views and actions of the military authorities to be set out.

In parallel to the independent review, following an inspection in 2016, the Air Corps had continued to work with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to improve its health and safety regime. I have been informed by the military authorities that the HSA has formally noted the considerable progress made to-date by the Defence Forces towards implementation of a safety management system for the control of hazardous substances. Subject to completion of the improvement plan the HSA investigation is closed. However, it must be noted that in the Air Corps health and safety is a matter of ongoing monitoring, supervision and adjustment.

The matter of the disclosures is receiving consideration in the context of the responses I received from the parties and legal advices in the context of ongoing active litigation…..blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah 18 22 men dead since Minister for Defence first notified minister considering report for a year 2-years now. 

DELAY – DENY – DIE

  1. Minister for Defence was first notified of ongoing Health & Safety issues at Irish Air Corps in November 2015.
  2. Twenty Two men have died since this date, three by their own hand. Some of these men could have been saved.
  3. There has been ZERO medical assistance offered to Air Corps survivors.
  4. There has been ZERO assessment of the chemical exposure effects to even serving personnel.
  5. Minister Kehoe is happy to let serving and former Air Corps personnel die while he takes 2 years to consider his next step.
  6. Meanwhile the State Claims Agency who were awarding the Air Corps awards for excellence in Health & Safety while they actively poisoned personnel are frustrating legal cases by tying them up in appeals.
  7. Tune in next year for another bullshit reply in the Dail from Paul Kehoe.

DIE – Varadkar & Kehoe happy to let Irish Air Corps personnel die unnecessarily

Is it possible that these illnesses are a coincidence? Yes.

Could it be the case that there is no direct correlation between the chronic sickness suffered by former Air Corps staff and their working environment?

Absolutely.

But the evidence to date —what is known about the chemicals used in Baldonnel, the international precedents, the HSA inspection, the internal Air Corps memo — all these support the argument that at the very least, the possibility that conditions in Baldonnel have made people sick is worth a proper investigation.

However, this is a question the Government won’t ask because it fears the answer.

General Dynamics F-111 linked to RAAF Deseal / Reseal Scandal

 

It need not be this way.

Australia went through a major scandal when scores of its Air Force maintenance staff were found to be ill as a result of their working environment.

That scandal first emerged among a group of specialist staff who had a specific job, but the issue spread to Air Force staff who had exposures to a wider range of substances.

And yet in Australia, while those Air Force personnel involved in the health study have a higher rate of chronic illnesses than the general population, their mortality rate from those illnesses is actually lower.

Why?

Because the Australian government conducted an investigation, found a connection, and subsequently those affected knew the early warning signs, their doctors knew what to look out for, and earlier intervention was made possible.

There appears to be little appetite in Ireland to even investigate whether the same could possibly be happening here, despite the obvious potential benefits to a number of citizens.

Speaking privately, one of those who is seriously ill and who is before the court has admitted he believes he will be “in the ground” before his case reaches any sort of conclusion.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

DENY – An Taoiseach Dr. Leo Varadkar denies chemical link at Baldonnel

If only those foreign governments or Samsung had the medical advice on hand here in Ireland. Perhaps they would have held tough and refused compensation to their sick workers if they’d heard this suggestion by an Irish doctor:

“As a medical doctor, it is not possible for me to say if exposure to chemicals caused all or any of these illnesses because they are commonplace in the community at large.”

“If it was one specific illness resulting from a known chemical that caused such an illness, that would be one thing. These are not the allegations that are being made, however,”Dr Leo Varadkar told the Dáil in February 2018.

However, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would not support Dr Varadkar’s view that we should be looking out for “one specific illness resulting from a known chemical” in the Air Corps case. It says there is sufficient evidence to be sure that exposure to TCE is causation for kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cardiac defects.

They say the evidence is sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship is likely between exposure to TCE and leukaemia, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, end-stage renal disease, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma.

The agency says there are 21 different health effects — including various cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects — that have been found in at least one study that evaluated exposure to TCE and/or PCE.

Aside from that list of life-changing illnesses arising from exposure to TCE, it is worth bearing in mind that this was not the only chemical used in Baldonnel.

Varadkar and Kehoe’s stock answer to date is that there should be no examination of any connection between conditions in Baldonnel until the seven ongoing court cases are resolved. The first of these was lodged five years ago, and the State Claims Agency has fought these cases tooth and nail.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

DELAY – Irish Air Corps Chemical Deaths Mickey Mouse Inquiry

It is now over three years since whistle-blowers lifted the lid on issues in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

Five years have passed since the first personal injury claim against the State was lodged in the High Court.

The Irish Examiner reports that first highlighted these issues were published over two years ago.

With some exceptions, very little progress has been made in addressing the concerning matters at the heart of this scandal in the intervening period.

Writing in this newspaper last year, columnist Michael Clifford noted how there are two categories of inquiry frequently undertaken by a State agency or government organ.

“The standard inquiry is designed to find out whether something went wrong, how it happened, and who may be responsible,” he wrote.

“The other category frequently used, we shall refer to as the Mickey Mouse inquiry. This is designed to respond to a controversy.

“Turning over stones and digging for information is not the primary function of a Mickey Mouse inquiry.

“Instead, the main focus is to present the inquiry as an exhibit to show that something, anything, is being done,” he said.

Mr Clifford was referring to an inquiry into allegations by a Prison Service whistle-blower and recalled the initial attempts to “investigate” issues raised by Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

But he could easily have been referring to the lip service the Government has paid to serious allegations raised by Air Corps whistle-blowers, some ex-Defence Forces, and one still serving.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

Delay, deny, and die: The official response to Air Corps chemical exposure fears

The Dáil is set to debate the establishment of a special committee to conduct hearings into the possible health effects of toxic chemical exposure among Air Corps personnel, after two years of revelations in the Irish Examiner, with TDs expected to back the investigation before the summer. Joe Leogue looks at what has brought us to this point.

It also calls for measures, including medical cards, “to address the health needs of personnel that have been exposed to hazardous chemicals, and extend these measures to any civilians affected and to students who may be affected while on work experience”.

The move comes years after whistleblower allegations, court cases, and revelations in this newspaper that have prompted many questions.

There are some who believe those in positions of power are happy to leave those questions unanswered.

Those who believe that Air Corps technicians are seriously ill because they suffered undue exposure to harmful chemicals while working in Casement Aerodrome say the Government response to their concerns can be summed up by “three Ds”.

Delay – Deny- Die

Delay any meaningful investigation into their claims; deny there is an issue; and finally, wait for these sick troublemakers to die and stop rocking the boat.

Truth be told, nothing the Government — or successive ministers for defence — have done in recent years would dispel anyone of that notion.

Number of cases being defended by Department of Defence against former staff rises to eight

The Department of Defence has confirmed that the number of cases it is defending against former Defence Forces staff over chemical exposure in the Air Corps has risen to eight.

Detail of the new case emerged as Sinn Fein prepares a motion calling for Oireachtas inquiry into the health and safety management at Air Corps headquarters at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

In January 2017, this newspaper revealed how the Department of Defence had received a number of protected disclosures from whistleblowers alleging serious shortcomings in how Air Corps maintenance staff were protected from exposure to cancer-causing substances.

We also reported how, at the time, six former members who suffer a range of chronic illnesses, took High Court action against the State over what they said was a failure to train them properly on the dangers of the chemicals they used, or to provide them with adequate personal protective equipment.

These six former members had received the opinion of a toxicopathologist who linked their illnesses to their working conditions.

The Department has now confirmed that the number of cases has risen to eight, and this newspaper understands that a number of others are considering similar action.

Call for inquiry into allegations members of Defence Forces suffered due to toxic chemical exposure

The Dáil is to consider establishing a special Oireachtas inquiry into claims that Defence Forces personnel suffered serious health consequences over decades as a result of toxic chemical exposure – allegations first revealed by the Irish Examiner.

They believe these exposures could have caused the deaths and serious illnesses of former staff.

These whistle-blowers also submitted a complaint to the Health and Safety Authority, who inspected conditions at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel and threatened legal action against the Defence Forces unless it made improvements in how Air Corps staff are protected from the effects of the toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, the State is defending seven personal injury claims from former Air Corps members who have been told by a toxico-pathologist that their chronic illnesses were caused by their exposure to chemicals used in the line of duty.

The Government first received protected disclosures from whistleblowers in December 2015, and an independent report on the claims found appropriate records to demonstrate the Air Corps compliance with health and safety standards “are not readily available.”

However, despite receiving that report in the summer of 2017, no subsequent action has been taken by the Government, nearly two years later.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

*****

There have been 22 untimely deaths of Irish Air Corps serving & former personnel since the first health and safety related protected disclosure was made to Simon Coveney in December 2015.

This Fine Gael government appear quite happy to sit back and let our colleagues die. At least 3 of the 22 deaths were suicides and therefore preventable.

Delay – Deny – Die

Dáil Debates Other Questions 17/1/19 – Defence Forces Equipment

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

QUESTION NO: 11

To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if all Defence Forces and Air Corps officers are trained in the use of respirators and-or breathing apparatus in the context of handling chemicals and toxic material; if the use of same is now mandatory; and the date on which it became mandatory. [1803/19]

This question relates to the change in the health and safety regime brought about in recent years because of disclosures from whistle-blowers, which have led to changes in health and safety in the Air Corps in particular. Are all Defence Forces and Air Corps officers trained in the use of respirators and breathing apparatus in the context of handling chemicals and toxic material which, in the past, were wrongly handled and possibly exposed people to poisoning and ill-health?

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

I am advised by the military authorities that all members of the Defence Forces are trained in the fitting of the general service respirator as part of their basic training and that tests of elementary training are conducted annually in a respirator test facility. This training is in keeping with chemical, biological, radioactive and neurological (WTF?) training that all Defence Forces personnel undergo following basic training.

I am further advised by the military authorities that only those Defence Forces personnel who are required to work with chemicals and toxins are required to undergo respiratory protective equipment training. Such training is provided to members of the Defence Forces in accordance with the relevant health and safety legislation.

With regard to the Air Corps, I am advised that it uses two types of respiratory protective equipment depending on the type of activity being carried out. These are respirators, which are air purifying, and breathing apparatus, through which air is supplied. I am advised that personnel who require respiratory protective equipment training are trained as necessary.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

I welcome the Minister of State’s statement but part of the question was when did it become mandatory. The final part of the reply seems to suggest that not all Air Corps personnel are trained in the use of respirators. When exactly did it become mandatory for all Defence Force personnel to have this training? Is the training in full use currently?

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

With regard to the Air Corps, I am surprised that people who specifically deal with chemicals are trained in the wearing of respirators only if they are involved in dealing with these types of chemicals. Full training is given to these people and they undergo relevant retraining to ensure they are fully trained.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

The question is when that happened.

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

I do not have a specific date but to my knowledge full training is carried out in line with what is required. I will come back to the Deputy with a specific date.

*****

DELAY – DENY – DIE