A toxico-pathologist quoted in documents submitted to the High Court alleges former air corps staff members’ exposure not only caused existing medical complaints, but also puts them at risk of “the possible onset of Alzheimer’s disease and a variety of cancers”.
Personal injury claims submitted by the staff state they now suffer from a litany of neurological issues such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and memory loss — all due to their time working for the air corps.
The cases taken against the State, the Attorney General, and the Department of Defence — and seen by the Irish Examiner — involve staff who joined the air corps in the 1990s as teenagers who went straight from secondary school to work as apprentices in repair and maintenance workshops in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.
In all the cases seen by the Irish Examiner, the plaintiffs noticed unusual symptoms while based in Casement, and sought medical advice from the air corps doctor. All claim that, at the time, no connection was made between their complaints and their work with dangerous chemicals.
It is understood that the State will vigorously defend the cases and will challenge claims that the men were exposed to dangerous chemicals or solvents.
While acknowledging the receipt of some questions in relation to the legal actions, the Department of the Defence did not give a response.
Meanwhile, the work-place safety watchdog has threatened to prosecute the air corps unless it addresses shortcomings in how it protects its staff from the effects of harmful chemicals.
In response, the air corps has conceded that it will place “stricter controls” around the handling of carcinogenic chemicals.
Last year, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) visited Casement Airbase in Baldonnel, Co Dublin, several times to inspect the premises. A report by the HSA to the air corps last October raised several health and safety issues that the authority said were in need of “immediate attention”.
The report, seen by the Irish Examiner, warned that the air corps’ risk assessments need to be reviewed.
The recommendations of the HSA include:
- Adequate equipment such as protective gloves, eye protection and respirators for protection against chemical exposure “must be readily available to employees as required by relevant risk assessment findings”;
- “[Its] systems of work and preventative and protective measures should be in accordance with established good industry practice”;
- A programme to monitor employees’ actual exposure to particular hazardous substances should be considered as part of the risk assessment process;
- Create a “culture” where minor accidents and incidents are reported;
- Implement an appropriate asbestos management system to manage risk from any asbestos-containing materials.
“Failure to comply with this advice and relevant legal requirements may result in further enforcement action including prosecution,” the HSA report warned.
In a reply last month, the air corps said it is “fully committed to implementing the improved safety standards that protect workers from potential exposures to chemicals and will ensure risks are are low as reasonably practicable”.
“Carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals will be subject to more stringent controls and these controls will be fully documented,” wrote Comdt Mark Donnelly, the air corps formation safety adviser.
“Chemical awareness training and promotion of chemical safety will now be included in the annual training plan.”