The court documents tell similar stories.
The cases taken against the State, seen by the Irish Examiner, involve staff who joined the air corps as teenagers who went straight from secondary school to work as apprentices in various repair and maintenance workshops in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.
Due to their young age, some would have to get their parents to sign their guardianship over to the State.
In the 1990s, these workers mostly carried out their day-to-day tasks in two rows of terraced workshops that faced each other, and ran parallel to the Baldonnel Road on the east side of Casement Aerodrome.
Those taking cases were based in these workshops, including the engine repair flight (ERF) workshop and avionics squadrons workshop, which shared a building opposite the engineering wing hangar. This hangar housed the carpentry shop, sheet metal shop, hydraulic shop, and the spray paint shop.
The Irish Examiner is aware of at least six cases currently working through the courts, and has seen documents relating to some of these.
In all the cases seen by this newspaper, 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.
All now claim they suffer from a variety of serious complaints, and that the medical advice they received after leaving the air corps suggests that their illnesses may be a direct result of the conditions in which they worked at Baldonnel.
In one case, documents lodged with the High Court state that a former technician has been told he is at risk of the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease and “a variety of cancers” as a result of his exposure to solvents while at the air corps.
The summons claims that in the mid-90s this technician noticed that the colour of his skin on the right side of his abdomen, groin and right upper leg had changed. It is alleged that he went to an army doctor but received no treatment or advice.
After that he became progressively argumentative, increasingly dissatisfied with his work and began to experience mood swings which became more severe as time passed. Again, he attended an army doctor, but claims he received no explanation or treatment.
He left the air corps in the late 90s, and years later was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He then developed pain in his back and leg, pins and needles and a loss of feeling and power in his arms. Further medical investigation revealed he suffered large fibre nerve conduction loss.
As the years passed he developed numbness in his lower limbs, and feared one of his legs would give way. He suffered bouts of sweating, and a tremor in one of his hands.
He eventually saw a toxico-pathologist who is of the opinion that his complaints are as a result of his exposure to organic solvents — particularly trichloroethylene — which is used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts.
He was told that his mood swings, anxiety and other symptoms are consistent with organic encephalopathy — brain disorder — and that it is apparent he has suffered neurological damage to both the central and peripheral nervous systems.
It is this toxico-pathologist who warned the former air corps technician that future additional risks to his health posed by his past exposure to organic solvents include the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease and a variety of cancers.
The personal injury summons lodged with the High Court lists 26 particulars of negligence — 26 examples of where the former air corp worker claims the State failed in its duty of care.
Among the claims, he alleges he was regularly required to use trichloroethylene without having received either any training as to how to use it, or the proper protective measures required to use it.
Not only is it claimed that there was a failure to make staff aware of the hazards of the chemicals they used, it is further alleged that a blind eye was turned to practical jokes mainly played on new apprentices. The technician claims he was a victim of “tubbing” — a prank whereby he was immersed in a washing bath containing unspecified chemicals, solvents and old engine oil.
He further alleges that the staff tea room was located adjacent to the engine workshop and was contaminated with the chemicals used in this area.
In his summons, the technician claims that as a result of his exposure to chemicals, he suffers pain, discomfort, depression and is concerned for his future health.
In another case, the plaintiff claims he suffered a dizzyness early on during his time at the air corps after exposure to solvents, and started to experience a rash on his arms. He experienced sores, an irritation in his nose and he lost his sense of smell.
Court documents submitted to the High Court also allege this was combined with chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance, mood swings and an inability to concentrate. He said he suffered chronic headaches and short-term memory loss. He said that on a number of occasions he suffered bloody diarrhoea, and that he also experienced a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
It is claimed he consulted with the air corps medical officers a number of times, and that despite investigations and expert referrals, no cause for his complaints were found, and he continued to work in the same environment until he left the air corps in the mid-2000s.
It was not until years later, when he sought further help, that he was told that his complaints were as a result of a decade of exposure to harmful chemicals.
He was also told that his mood swings, concentration issues, memory loss, anxiety and depression were all characteristics of organic encephalopathy.
He was further informed that he has peripheral neuropathy — conditions caused by damage to the nervous system. The medical opinion of the toxico-pathologist was that the plaintiff’s issues, combined with fatty liver degeneration, were as a result of an “excessive exposure” to organic solvents during his time at the air corps.
In this case, the personal injury summons lodged with the High Court lists a total of 25 particulars of negligence.
The former air corps worker alleges:
- He was not provided with a safe place of work.
- He was not trained for the work he was asked to do.
- He was not warned of the dangers involved in the duties he was ordered to carry out or the hazards posed by the chemicals he worked with daily.
He says he was asked to climb into chemical tanks to clean out sediment and to hand pump chemicals from baths when it should have been known that it was dangerous for him to do so.
The court documents contain allegations that he had to handle airplane parts with his bare hands, that there was no proper ventilation in place in his workplace, and that he was given “ineffective and inappropriate gloves” when handling chemicals.
He is also alleging that his medical complaints were not properly investigated at the time, and that he was allowed “to remain in an environment in the course of work where he was exposed to dangerous chemicals and solvents, notwithstanding his having ongoing medical complaints”.
All this, he claims, has led to his current situation whereby he suffers pain and discomfort, worries about his future prospects of employment and has been “greatly discommoded” in his general enjoyment in life.
IN ANOTHER case, a former technician also stated that he was told he is at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
He said he entered the air corps as a physically active, keen cyclist and hill walker who experienced symptoms of fatigue early on in his apprenticeship at Baldonnel.
He suffered anxiety and a loss of concentration that he says resulted in his dropping out from a third-level course. He said he developed testicular pain after spray painting for an entire day without any personal protective equipment.
Having served for the best part of a decade, he left the air corps in the late 90s and presented at hospital years later with persistent vomiting and diarrhoea. Again, he saw a toxico-pathologist and again his fatigue, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression were attributed to organic encephalopathy.
A previous diagnosis of infertility was also now attributed to the exposure to chemicals he experienced at the air corps.
His complaints against the State are similar to the cases above; that there was a lack of supervision or training, no protective equipment, and poor ventilation.
He claims the defendants “caused, allowed or permitted” him to be doused with chemicals by other air corps personnel.
He alleges that early into his apprenticeship he was required to sweep up asbestos, and that he was exposed to lead solder fumes and other hazardous chemicals. He also alleges that he was required to climb into chemical tanks to clean them, that he was given “ineffective and inappropriate gloves” while exposed to chemicals and solvents, and that he was required to handle parts with bare hands.
He also alleges the defendants failed to properly investigate the medical complaints he made during his time at the air corps, and required him to remain in an environment where he was exposed to harmful chemicals, notwithstanding his on-going medical complaints.
In these three cases, it is alleged there were breaches of the provisions of the Safety and Industry Act 1980, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007.
It is understood the State will vigorously defend the cases and challenge the allegations that the men were exposed to dangerous chemicals or solvents.
“No admission is made that the defendants exposed the plaintiff to dangerous chemicals or solvents whether on an ongoing basis or at all,” court documents in one of the cases reveal.
“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,” the document continues.
“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,” the State argued.
The Irish Examiner further understands that in another case, the State is arguing that the statute of limitations has run out — that the plaintiff is too late in taking action against them.
In a separate development, the Health and Safety Authority warned the Air Corps last October that its workplace risk assessment needs to ensure that “specified control measures including provision of information and training to relevant employees, are adequately implemented”.
It described the surveillance of employees’ health as a “necessary measure” and added that “the putting in place of a programme to monitor employees’ actual exposure to particular hazardous substances is another measure that should be considered as part of the risk assessment process”.
It further advised that the use of ventilation systems should be considered so that “would facilitate capture at source of volatile emissions with consequent reduced reliance on personal protective equipment (PPE)”.
It also warned that staff need protective equipment to do their jobs. “Adequate and appropriately specified Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), in particular protective gloves, eye protection and respirators for protection against chemical exposure, must be readily available to employees as require by relevant risk assessment findings,” the report read.
The air corps responded to this report last month, and provided a schedule to the HSA in which it outlined how and when it would address the shortcomings identified.
Australia allocated A$55M to compensate service personnel
The Australian government has paid tens of millions of dollars in compensation to former air force servicemen and women in recognition of the illnesses they suffered having worked with harmful chemicals.
While a compensation scheme was established for one select set of workers, there have been calls for it to be widened to include more workers who attribute their ill health and disability to the duties they carried out for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
The claims started with complaints from the RAAF’s ‘goop troop’ — workers who performed maintenance on the fuel tanks of the F111 bombers, a task known as the ‘deseal reseal programme’.
The design of the aircraft required workers to crawl into its fuel tanks and use toxic chemicals for hours at a time in cramped conditions to fix leaks from the inside.
In 2000, the department of defence commissioned a board of inquiry to examine the health effects of the Air Force staff’s working conditions, following hundreds of complaints from veterans suffering cancer, depression, and other illnesses.
The Study of Health Outcomes in Aircraft Maintenance Personnel was created following the board’s investigations.
The first study uncovered that “the results point to an association between F-111 DSRS [deseal reseal] involvement and a lower quality of life and more common erectile dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and subjective memory impairment”.
“There is also evidence, albeit less compelling, of an association between DSRS and dermatitis, obstructive lung disease [i.e. bronchitis and emphysema], and neuropsychological deficits,” the first study found.
Last year, the most recent of these studies was published, and it found that involvement in the deseal reseal programmes was associated with a “statistically significant” 23% to 30% increase in the overall rate of cancer diagnosis compared to other Royal Australian Air Force personnel who were not exposed to the chemicals.
In its 2010-2011 budget, the Australian government allocated A$55m (€38m) over five years towards a healthcare and compensation package for the former F-111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance workers.
However, in 2015 the findings of a jet fuel syndrome study found that a wider group of personnel who worked with jet fuel suffered damage to their cells with unknown long-term effects.
Its findings have led for calls for a wider compensation scheme for those working with jet fuel within the Australian defence force.