An independent review of allegations made by Defence Forces whistleblowers has found records “are not readily available” to prove the Air Corps was in compliance with health regulations on the use of toxic chemicals.
The review’s author has also warned that the terms of reference he was given for this probe were “impractical”, and that elements of the allegations made were issues outside his expertise.
“Whether there is now or was at the relevant time an actual level of exposure which was in fact potentially harmful I am not in a position to judge,” retired civil servant Christopher O’Toole said.
The review also does not address claims that previous health records were destroyed as part of a cover-up within the Defence Forces.
The report was commissioned by the Department of Defence following a series of protected disclosures, beginning in December 2015, which alleged Air Corps staff were being unduly exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in the course of servicing and cleaning aircraft.
The State is being sued by six former members of the Air Corps who say their chronic illnesses, including cancer, are as a result of their unnecessary exposure to high levels of carcinogenic materials. They allege their level of exposure was needlessly high as the Defence Forces failed to implement adequate protective measures to diminish the impact of the chemicals.
Three whistleblowers made submissions to the then defence minister Simon Coveney and his successor, minister of state Paul Kehoe. Included in their claims is the allegations that inspection reports that raised concerns about conditions at Casement Aerodrome were deliberately destroyed.
In September of last year, Mr O’Toole was appointed to review the allegations. His review was submitted to the department earlier this year and released to the whistleblowers this week.
However, opening his report, Mr O’Toole said he 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”.
“Having considered the allegations made by the three informants it is my view that a review of the kind envisaged by the terms of reference set out above is impractical and I therefore can only comment in general terms on the safety regime.”
Despite this, in concluding his 37-page report, he said he could not establish whether historic work practices complied with regulations in place at the time.
“A problem has arisen in relation to the issues raised by the three informants because appropriate records to demonstrate compliance are not readily available.”
The report reviewed each whistleblower’s claim separately. One is a serving member of the Air Corps, the other two are former staff who are taking legal action against the State. The complaints submitted by a fourth whistleblower earlier this year were not considered as part of the review.
In both cases involving a former staff member, Mr O’Toole said the pending court cases may be the best avenue to determine if the Air Corps complied with its safety obligations.
“I have no material which would provide a record of any assessment or procedures at the time relevant to the allegations made,” he wrote on one case.
“In the absence of such records, proof of compliance is problematic and establishing the actual situation at the time in question would be a complex task requiring the gathering of evidence and probably taking oral testimony; in effect a forensic exercise which it is not possible for me to carry out,” he said.
In the case of allegations made by the serving whistleblower, Mr O’Toole said earlier versions of the chemical register listing the products used by mechanics prior to 2015 “do not appear as comprehensive as would be desirable”.
This whistleblower complained to the Health and Safety Authority, which inspected Casement Aerodrome and threatened the Air Corps with legal action if it did not address concerns it raised.
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