The Junior Defence Minister said he is “fully satisfied” the State Claims Agency (SCA) can adequately carry out health audits in the Air Corps — despite a separate workplace safety watchdog finding a series of failings at Casement Aerodrome after a decade of annual inspections by the SCA.
Mr Kehoe gave his backing to the SCA after he told the Dáil that the agency “conducted a number of Health and Safety Management System Defence Forces audits within the Air Corps between the years 2006-2015”.
The Irish Examiner has previously revealed that complaints by three Air Corps whistleblowers about chemical exposures at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, prompted an investigation by the Health and Safety Authority in 2016 — which found a litany of failings.
The HSA threatened legal action against the Air Corps unless it implemented improvements in its management of workers’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
These recommendations included providing gloves, eye protection and respirators to those using toxic chemicals, and the monitoring of personnels’ health.
The HSA also found that “the safety management system for control of chemical hazards was noted to be significantly less developed than would be expected for an organisation of the size and resources of the Air Corps”.
The Air Corps accepted the HSA’s findings and implemented a year-long programme of improvements to bring safety measures up to standards.
The whistleblower complaints also prompted an independent review. In his report, the reviewer said “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 SCA’s audits were not made available to the reviewer, nor was an internal Air Corps report, seen by this newspaper, which raised concerns about staff exposure to the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene.
The Government has also ruled out an investigation into whistleblower claims that health and safety reports dating back to the 1990s that raised concerns about conditions in Casement Aerodrome were deliberately destroyed.
The SCA is currently defending 21 court cases against the Air Corps, including a number from ex-personnel who say their exposure to chemicals at Casement Aerodrome led to serious illnesses.
Mr Kehoe revealed the decade of SCA audits in response to a parliamentary question from Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, who was critical of the decision not to release reports.
“Time and time again the minister states that the health and welfare of the Defence Forces personnel is a high priority for him and the military authorities. This may be the case, but the health and welfare of all future recruits and contractors should be too,” Ms Murphy told the Irish Examiner.
“Health and Safety reports should not be shrouded in secrecy. It is an area of expertise of the Health and Safety Authority, perhaps they should really be leading on this, I question whether the State Claims Agency in the past provided an adequate service and applied robust enough tests to the working environment at Baldonnel.”
A spokesperson for Mr Kehoe said: “The Minister is fully satisfied in respect of the State Claims Agency’s competency to carry out its statutory functions.”