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

Taoiseach under pressure as SCA slow to hand over air corps documents

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27 men and one woman have died since the first whistleblower raised concerns of untimely deaths in a Protected Disclosure to the Minister for Defence in 2015.

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. 

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…

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

Delay – Deny – Die

State faces seventh Irish Army Air Corps action

The State is facing a further High Court action from a former member of the Defence Forces allegedly suffering chronic ill-health due to exposure to chemicals in the Air Corps.

The disclosure of a seventh case came in the Dáil yesterday, where opposition politicians said the Government’s response to a growing health scandal over the past year was like ‘Groundhog Day’ in its repetition and inaction.

Last year, the Irish Examiner revealed six former Defence Forces members were suing the State over chronic health issues. A medical expert had advised that the health complaints were as a result of working conditions at Casement Aerodrome.

This newspaper also revealed how a number of whistleblowers had warned the Government that the Air Corps’ management of chemical exposure was inadequate, a claim vindicated after an inspection by the Health and Safety Authority.

Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe yesterday confirmed a seventh case. He denied claims there had been a cover-up within the Defence Forces to hide the extent of its knowledge of conditions in Baldonnell Aerodrome.

“The Minister of State seems, somehow, to be suggesting that his inaction is to serve the interests of those affected,” said Fianna Fáil defence spokeswoman Lisa Chambers.

“Minister, this particular issue is a little bit like Groundhog Day; we continue to ask questions, myself and others, and we continue to get the same stock response.

Sinn Féin defence spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh called for a health survey of Air Corps members to determine whether they are more at risk of serious illness.

“All the O’Toole report dealt with was whether the procedures were in place to deal with whistleblowers. This is not about the whistleblowers or the cases before the courts at the moment,” he said.

“The State is fighting them tooth and nail and I think it is on the losing side. If those are set aside, there are quite a number of other members who gave service to this State, through the Air Corps, who are suffering catastrophic health problems.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

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Air Corps scandal still some way from touching down

In a series of articles across 2017, the Irish Examiner revealed serious concerns about the working environment within the Air Corps — matters that have seen allegations of a deliberate cover-up, of victimisation of whistleblowers, and of a lackadaisical attitude towards health and safety that has put lives at risk, writes Joe Leogue.

While the stories broken by this newspaper since January have posed a myriad of questions for the State and the Defence Forces, the issues have one common controversy running throughout.

Have technicians within the Air Corps developed cancer, neurological problems, and other chronic conditions as a result of unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals during their time at Casement Aerodrome?

WARNING  – Very long article reviewing the following topics.

  • The Court Cases
  • The Whistleblowers
  • The Health Watchdog Inspections – Vindication for the Whistleblowers
  • The Internal Report
  • The Missing Reports – And allegations of a Cover-Up
  • The Independent Review
  • The International Precedents
  • The Political Reaction

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

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Air Corps report ‘not available’ to reviewer

An official tasked with reviewing whistle-blower allegations of chemical exposure within the Air Corps was not given access to the Defence Forces’ own report on the claims, the Government has confirmed.

Six former Air Corps staff are suing the State, claiming their exposure to chemicals while in the Defence Forces caused cancers and other chronic illnesses they now suffer.

Meanwhile, three whistleblowers came forward to allege health and safety mismanagement within the Air Corps, in the years up to 2016. A subsequent inspection by the Health and Safety Authority confirmed many of the complaints outlined in the whistleblowers’ protected disclosures.

A Freedom of Information request earlier this year from Deputy Aengus O’Snodaigh had revealed Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe had been given a copy of a report entitled “Chemical Exposure Report (1994-2005)”.

The Department of Defence, meanwhile, tasked former civil servant Christopher O’Toole with reviewing claims from three whistleblowers who alleged the health of dozens of Air Corps staff may have been seriously compromised by exposure to chemicals used to clean and service aircraft.

In his report, however, Mr O’Toole concluded the terms of reference he was given had been ‘impractical’, and noted that appropriate records to demonstrate the Air Corps complied with health and safety regulations “are not readily available”.

This week, the Sinn Féin TD subsequently asked Mr Kehoe whether Mr O’Toole was provided with a copy of the “Chemical Exposure Report (1994-2005)”.

Mr Kehoe said it would not have been “appropriate” to give the report to Mr O’Toole. “As the report is subject to legal privilege, it was not appropriate to make it available to the independent reviewer,” the minister said.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

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Pressure for probe into Casement Aerodrome health and safety

The Government is under increasing pressure to set up a commission of investigation into alleged health and safety management failures at Casement Aerodrome.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the Government has received and will consider whistleblowers’ thoughts on the independent review into their allegations of health and safety mismanagement within the Defence Forces, and recommendations would be drawn up to go to Cabinet on the matter.

It comes after the Irish Examiner revealed how former Air Corps staff are suing the State and claim they now suffer chronic illnesses — including cancer — as a result of the Defence Forces’ failure to adequately manage their exposure to the hazardous chemicals they used to service and clean aircraft.

The Irish Examiner also first reported how three whistleblowers raised concerns about how health and safety was managed in the Air Corps and alleged that missing inspection reports on conditions at Casement Aerodrome were destroyed as part of a cover-up to hide what the Defence Forces knew about the working environment.

Taking leaders questions in the Dáil for the first time as Tánaiste, Mr Coveney said he is “personally familiar” with some of the cases Labour leader Brendan Howlin raised and with previous whistleblowers at Casement Aerodrome.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

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Paul Kehoe seeks to protect Air Corps whistleblower

The Government has written to the Defence Forces to demand a serving member who raised health and safety concerns within the Air Corps be protected under whistleblowers’ legislation.

The assurance from Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe came on the very day the whistleblower appeared before a Medical Board facing a charge of alleged “chronic ineffectivity” due to anxiety and a “work-related industrial dispute”.

The whistleblower had alleged that the Air Corps was failing in its duty to protect staff from the effects of the carcinogenic chemicals used to clean and service aircraft, and met Mr Kehoe to claim he was being victimised within the force for raising concerns.

Complaints from three whistleblowers led to an investigation from the Health and Safety Authority who threatened legal action against the Air Corps unless it improved its management of the hazardous chemicals.

An independent review of their claims found that documents “are not readily available” to prove the Air Corps was in compliance with health regulations on the use of toxic chemicals.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

Delay – Deny – Die

Great to see a change of tack by Minister Paul Kehoe in the Air Corps whistleblowers case and that he took steps to ensure the only serving whistleblower received a fair medical board hearing.

It appears that the O’Toole report may not have been a waste of time as it helped the government ascertain that the Whistleblowers are telling the truth with regards to past Irish Air Corps compliance with chemical Health & Safety legislation.

The next step is for the government consider our demands which are balanced, fair & necessary.

*****

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.

We urge that all responsible organisations in the state such as political parties, government departments and the Defence Forces to work together to commit the state to provide the following for survivors as an ex. gratia scheme with no admission of liability by the state.

Current & future legal cases should be allowed to take their natural course unhindered whilst all survivors are cared for equally by the state.

  1. A state funded medical awareness, vigilance & screening program aimed at early detection of the serious “at risk” diseases such as blood / gastro / renal / skin cancers, cardiac problems, Crohn’s, Parkinson’s etc. for exposed serving and former personnel in Ireland & abroad. List of illnesses to be determined in cooperation with a suitably qualified medical toxicologist.
  2. A non-means-tested medical card for all exposed current & former personnel to include spouses & children.
  3. A non-means-tested free travel pass for all exposed current & former personnel plus a spouse / carer.
  4. A non-means-tested state funded counselling program for exposed current & personnel and their family members to include assistance for the management of anxiety / depression / Chronic Fatigue / sleep disturbance etc.
  5. National co-ordination of medical consultants as well as hospitals throughout the state so as there is awareness of conditions that exposed current & former exposed personnel are likely to present.
  6. A National awareness program for all GPs throughout the state so they can offer sympathetic medical treatment to Irish Army Air Corps chemical exposure survivors. This is to help ensure correct forwarding to specialist consultants, to reduce the dismissal of symptoms as being psychologically based and to reduce the likelihood of survivors being labeled as malingerers.
  7. Non-means-tested respite care for carers of seriously ill survivors or children with disabilities.
  8. Non-means-tested financial assistance for home & vehicle adaptation for those suffering disability as a result of chemical exposure.
  9. Non-means-tested financial assistance or other provision for those unable to maintain their own homes such as building & garden maintenance assistance.
  10. Independent management, medical, scientific & toxicological investigation of the entire Irish Army Air Corps chemical exposure episode to investigate obvious failures in Health & Safety planning & auditing, lack of or failure of external Health & Safety oversight, failure of the Military Medical Corps to identify serious medical effects of exposure and attempts by the military to cover up knowledge of the dangers known to Air Corps management since at least the 1990s and to further identify & mitigate medical risks faced by exposed personnel.
  11. A military police investigation to determine whether there was a breach of military law by Air Corps management to do with injury to personnel or dereliction of duty.
  12. A reimbursement of vouched medical expenses to date for survivors who have paid their own, their spouses or their children’s related medical expenses.
  13. Non-means-tested financial assistance to those personnel who are unable to work or have suffered severe financial hardship as a result of past or ongoing illnesses or the illnesses / disabilities of their children.

Exposed current & former personnel to include from the following categories

  • Current military personnel
  • Former military personnel
  • Current civilian personnel
  • Former civilian personnel
  • Former civilian work experience students e.g. From the University of Limerick.

Attempts to dismiss serving Air Corps whistleblower on medical grounds ‘not a disciplinary procedure’

JUNIOR MINISTER FOR Defence Paul Kehoe has said that attempts to dismiss a serving Air Corps whistleblower was not a disciplinary matter but was instead a way to ensure the long term health and safety of the member as well as the Defence Forces as a whole.

In the last 12 months, at least six former members of the Defence Forces have started legal proceedings against the State, alleging that they were exposed to toxic levels of chemicals and that a lack of protective equipment has left them with lifelong illnesses.

One of those whistleblowers was brought before St Bricin’s Military Hospital on Wednesday for a check-up. As things stand, he has not been dismissed on medical grounds.

Sinn Féín’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who has been following the case closely, said the man in question appeared before a medical hearing yesterday morning for the very reason he met the Minister of State – “that there was something rotten in the Air Corps in terms of health and safety, as he and other whistleblowers had outlined”.

Ó Snodaigh told the Dáíl: “His medical condition and others are directly related to mass exposure to highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.”In the last year, TheJournal.ie has reported on a number of elements on this whistleblower case.

Read full article on The Journal website below…

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PDFORRA will back Air Corps whistleblower at hearing

The organisation representing enlisted members of the Defence Forces says it will support the Air Corps whistleblower who is facing possible dismissal at a Medical Board hearing today.

The whistleblower, who has made protected disclosures to Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe, is accused by military superiors of “chronic ineffectivity” due to anxiety and a “work- related industrial dispute”.

He had raised concerns surrounding workers’ exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals used by the Air Corps in cleaning and servicing its aircraft.

A subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Authority led to the HSA threatening the Air Corps with legal action unless it implemented its recommendations. The whistleblower also alleged that earlier inspections at Casement Aerodrome in the 1990s produced reports raising concerns with the environment at the Air Corps HQ — and that these documents were destroyed.

In one protected disclosure he wrote that he was the victim of “defamatory allegations” by an official within the Air Corps which the whistleblower believes “was in effect an attempt to rebuke and intimate me, for highlighting genuine safety concerns”.

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

Delay – Deny – Die