Revelations that the Air Corps has doubts over its own health and safety management raises further questions about the State’s treatment of former members who now suffer a litany of illnesses that they claim came as a result of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
Today’s Irish Examiner reveals that an internal Air Corps report from 2014 cast doubt over whether adequate protection was given to technicians who would have worked with cancer-causing solvents on a daily basis. It also states that staff could have ingested the airborne chemical because their tea room was in an adjacent room, and that their clothes could have been contaminated due to their lockers being in the room where the chemical was used.
The Air Corps could not find any records stating its staff had received any training on the dangers of the chemicals they were tasked with using.
The details of this report come a week after this newspaper revealed that the Government “cannot locate” documents that opposition TDs say show that health and safety concerns were raised more than 20 years ago.
The 2014 report’s admissions make the State’s refusal to investigate potential links between the workers’ illnesses and their exposure more inexplicable.
It also calls into question the State’s decision to drag claims made by former staff through the courts.
Over the past five months, this newspaper has highlighted a number of issues, including:
- Air Corps technicians worked with cancer-causing chemicals;
- A number of former staff have been diagnosed with a host of chronic illnesses, including cancer;
- In the cases before the court, a toxico-pathologist has given his professional opinion that the former members’ illnesses were caused by their working environment;
- Former Stage agency Forbairt carried out inspections in Casement Aerodrome in the 1990s;
- Neither the Department of Defence nor the military authorities can produce reports arising from these inspections, and have not explained how these records have gone missing.
Opposition TDs say they have copies of these reports and that the documents raised concerns back in the 1990s.
Historical cases aside, we know that in 2015, three whistleblowers raised issues over current health and safety practices, and that a fourth made a protected disclosure earlier this year.
We know that, last October, the Health and Safety Authority threatened the Air Corps with legal action after it found shortcomings in its health and safety management — mirroring concerns raised by whistleblowers.
Now for the questions that remain.
What happened to those inspection reports from the 1990s? Why is it the military authorities cannot find these documents? Were they destroyed? If so, by whom, on what authority, and why?
Is it the case, as Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh has claimed, that these documents were destroyed because they are proof the Defence Forces has known its health and safety measures have been lacking for decades?
Is the department investigating why these records cannot be found?
Why is the State using its considerable resources to battle former members of the Defence Forces through the courts, even after the Air Corps’ own report all but admitted it may have a case to answer?
A discovery order in one of the court cases, published last year, shows the State’s position is that “no admission is made... [that] it exposed the plaintiff to dangerous chemicals or solvents whether on an ongoing basis or at all”.
The State argued: “The defendants plead that if the plaintiff suffered any personal injury, loss, or damage it was not caused by any act or omission on its part or was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of any such act or omission. Furthermore, if the plaintiff suffered any personal injury, loss, or damage it is said that this was due wholly or partly to his own negligence.”
How can it say this with confidence when the Air Corps itself has doubts, and inspection reports into the conditions at Casement Aerodrome have gone missing?
As for the current claims — why is it that, despite requests dating back to 2015, a Government minister only this month met with an Air Corps whistle-blower for the first time?
Why did it take the Government 10 months from the time of the first protected disclosure to appoint someone to look into the whistleblowers’ claims?
Will the Government publish the findings of the investigation into these protected disclosures?
Is it a case, as has been alleged, that whistleblowers have been victimised for raising concerns? One of the four whistleblowers in the Air Corps brought a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, where the case was settled.
The State has a duty of care to those who serve the country. In some of the historical cases, recruits to the Air Corps were so young they needed their parents to sign guardianship to the State before they could enlist.
Today these men, mostly in their 40s, now want to know the answers to the issues raised in the past five months.
The problem is the State has decided it won’t be the one to ask the questions.