The junior defence minister has refused to say when Air Corps technicians were first trained to use respirators for working with toxic chemicals.
Technicians’ exposure to harmful substances in the line of duty is “a cause of significant concern”, according to Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, who submitted queries on the use of respirators, and protected disclosures, to minister of state Paul Kehoe.
The State Claims Agency is managing 10 claims taken against the Department of Defence for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps.
The Irish Examiner first revealed that conditions at Casement Aerodrome were subject to protected disclosures from whistleblowers concerned at a lack of training and safety equipment for those working with cancer-causing solvents.
Ms Murphy had asked Mr Kehoe the date on which it became policy and standard practice to train or upskill new and existing members of the Defence Forces, as part of basic training, in the use of respiratory protective equipment.
Mr Kehoe said he was advised that the question appeared “to involve matters which are raised in the proceedings currently before the courts”.
“The deputy will appreciate that, as the questions appear to encroach into on-going litigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further,” Mr Kehoe said.
Ms Murphy said she was disappointed with Mr Kehoe’s response, and that a lack of transparency only causes mistrust.
“I don’t know why he isn’t more forthcoming with the information. It will be revealed in the court cases anyway,” she told the Irish Examiner.
“I am trying to get information to build a picture here, because what I can see, so far, is a cause of significant concern, to put it mildly.”
Ms Murphy also asked Mr Kehoe the number of protected disclosures for which he has engaged an external consultancy, and or legal firm, since 2014, the costs involved, and the way in which whistleblowers are protected when an external consultancy firm is hired to handle a disclosure.
While Mr Kehoe said his department has not engaged the services of external consultancy or legals firm in respect of protected disclosures, three individuals have “assisted” in dealing with three separate protected disclosures since 2014, at a cost of €33,835.
“However, the Office of Government Procurement (OGP) have put in place a national framework for services related to the receipt and investigation of protected disclosures and my Department has recently signed a contract with Mazars, arising from a tender competition under this framework,” Mr Kehoe said.
Ms Murphy said she would have concerns if protected disclosures were not handled ‘in-house’ at departments and public bodies, as whistleblowers’ complaints are often a sign that a wider cultural change is needed within the body.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a just a route for complaints, but a route to change things,” Ms Murphy said.
Handing the disclosure out to a third party also risks compromising a whistleblower’s identity, she said.
“Confidentiality is a big deal to those who made disclosures, and within public bodies the focus of those who handle the disclosure is very narrow. Sending it to entities outside the organisation increases the chances that confidentiality will be broken,” she said.