Air Corps report fails to address the most pressing issue

A report on allegations that working conditions at Casement Aerodrome caused some workers’ ill health has failed to address some of the core issues, writes Joe Leogue.

Casement Aerodrome

While Christopher O’Toole’s report into allegations within the Air Corps is long-awaited, its findings — or lack thereof — come as no surprise to those who sparked the review.

But more pressingly, the review’s overall purpose as designed by the Department of Defence fails to address the most urgent issue as to whether Defence Forces staff are at greater risk of serious illness — a question that can only be answered by a significant health study and survey of current and former members.

In summary, since December 2015, a number of whistleblowers have alleged that the health and safety management of the dangerous chemicals used to service and clean aircraft at Casement Aerodrome has been lacking.

Separate court cases against the State allege that these shortcomings are responsible for the serious illnesses suffered by former Air Corps staff.

Aside from allegations that health management has been inadequate, there has been claims that an official within the Air Corps ordered the destruction of inspection reports that indicated an awareness of concerns dating back to the 1990s.

Almost two years on since the first protected disclosure was made, the report compiled by the retired civil servant has been made available to the whistleblowers.

The first of its 37 pages confirmed what they feared when they engaged with the process to review their claims.

Both the whistleblowers and Sinn Féin TD Aengus O’Snodaigh, who acted as witness to one of the informant’s meetings with Mr O’Toole, had previously expressed their concerns that the scope of Mr O’Toole’s enquiry was too narrow to adequately investigate the claims.

The report confirms as much.

“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,” Mr O’Toole advises on the first page of his report.

“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, I can only comment in general terms on the safety regime,” the second page begins.

Later, he states: “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.”

Despite these shortcomings, the whistleblowers will feel a level of vindication from the report.

Mr O’Toole repeatedly states that he cannot say the Air Corps complied with their safety obligations.

“A problem has arisen in relation to the issues raised by the three informants because appropriate records to demonstrate compliance are not readily available,” Mr O’Toole states in his conclusion.

“I have no material which would provide a record of any assessment or procedures at the time relevant to the allegations made. 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 states earlier in his report.

The Government jet at Casement Aerodrome.

One of the specific complaints made was that there was no ongoing assessment of the health of staff working with these chemicals, a claim Mr O’Toole backs in his report.

“All defence personnel are supposed to receive a routine medical at regular intervals but there appears to have been no special provision for personnel involved in maintenance work or any special alert in relation to persons who may have handled toxic chemicals.

“Even if a risk assessment does indicate a low risk rating in a workplace as a whole, this may not equate to an insignificant risk to all personnel and it is necessary to consider possible risks to individuals who may be at a greater risk of contact with products containing toxins,” Mr O’Toole said.

“As there is provision for regular medical checkups in the Defence Forces, it should not be difficult to ensure that any person who might be using products containing toxic substances is identified in order to alert the examining doctor and to highlight any changes in health or fitness status which might indicate an underlying problem. This would seem to be a simple measure to put in place.”

The report does not address the allegation that reports were destroyed.

While acknowledging the lack of records backing compliance, the review did not examine the allegation that records that did exist were destroyed to cover up the Air Corps failure to adhere to standards.

These allegations have been denied by the Defence Forces and the Government who claim the reports were simply mislaid.

Although the report tells us little we didn’t already know, it has done some service in confirming that there are no records available to show that the working conditions at Casement Aerodrome were safe.

In a controversy surrounded by uncertainty, it is incumbent on the Government to look at what is known, what the implications of this are, and how it can act in the best interests of men and women who serve the State.

We know that dozens of people worked with known carcinogens for years. We know some of them are now sick. We know that in October 2016, the Health and Safety Authority took issue with a number of aspects of the Air Corps health and safety management.

What we don’t know is if the illnesses suffered by former Air Corps staff is as a direct result of their working conditions.

Is it possible that their sickness are a coincidence? Yes.

But it is also possible that their fears are correct, that the exposures they have endured in the workplace have had devastating effects on their health.

And if that is the case, then it is possible that the six cases slowly making their way through the courts are just the tip of the iceberg, and that scores more may be ill or at a higher risk of illness because of their time at Casement Aerodrome.

All the whistleblowers have wanted all along is for the Government to establish a health study not to apportion blame, but to assess the health of those who have served the State.

This is not without precedent. A similar situation emerged in the Australian Air Force, and the government there acted to establish the extent of the issue while establishing supports for those affected.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

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