Christmas week 2015, and as the country busied itself preparing for the festive season, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, defence minister Simon Coveney, and junior defence minister Paul Kehoe paid a pre-election visit to Irish troops serving peace-keeping operations in Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Photographs released from the highly publicised trip saw the Taoiseach and his travelling party don blue helmets as they went to thank the troops and their families for their service.
However, not everyone was impressed with the visit.
“I really am disappointed that the leader of our country is happy taking pictures with troops abroad while the sick ones are left here to rot,” read an email sent to the Taoiseach’s office that week.
The sender was one of two whistleblowers who had already made protected disclosures to Mr Coveney about safety concerns within the repair and maintenance workshops at the air corps’ headquarters in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.
This whistleblower had written to the Taoiseach days previously to complain that they had received no confirmation that Mr Coveney had read the disclosure submitted to him a month before.
A third whistleblower would later come forward.
All three had similar complaints about the working conditions experienced by air corps maintenance staff.
The first disclosure to Mr Coveney came in November 2015. The whistleblower identified seven dangerous chemicals, some which are known to be cancer-causing and genetic-altering, and said that air corps staff were routinely working with these substances.
This first disclosure warned that the staff working with these chemicals were not being provided with occupational health surveillance — something that would pick up, at an early stage, whether staff health is being affected by their duties.
This screening is not just best practice — it is required by law under the Safety, Health, and Welfare at Work Act 2005, which replaced a 1989 version of the same legislation.
The second whistleblower wrote to Mr Coveney in the weeks prior to the Lebanon visit.
This whistleblower claimed that “at no point” during his air corps career was he ever offered health surveillance. He believed the air corps was failing to issue personal protection equipment to all personnel exposed to harmful and toxic chemicals in their day-to-day working environment.
The whistleblower stated that he believed these conditions within the air corps could be linked to illnesses among serving and former air corps personnel.
“What has happened in the past and what is still happening regarding chemical health and safety in the Irish army air corps is a grave scandal which I believe has seriously injured the health of a number of personnel,” warned the second whistleblower.
In January, with the general election just weeks away, a third whistleblower made a submission to Mr Coveney. Not only did this disclosure raise similar concerns about the health of air corps staff, but in it the whistleblower alleged there were attempts to intimidate him for raising the issues within the air corps.
The Irish Examiner has put the claims made by the three whistleblowers to the Defence Forces. It said that matters arising from protected disclosures are a matter for the Department of Defence.
The department said it cannot discuss issues relating to protected disclosures for fear of identifying the individuals involved.
These health concerns were not new, and had been previously raised through other channels.
In November 2015, the national health and safety officer with the PDForra, the organisation which represents enlisted Defence Forces members, had separately written to the Defence Forces.
The PDForra officer warned that staff working with dangerous chemicals were not being screened for adverse health reactions, and that the risk assessment measures in place are inadequate.
“The Defence Forces are required to make health surveillance available when employees’ exposure to a hazardous chemical is such that an identifiable disease or adverse health effect may be related to the exposure and to keep individual health records,” states the correspondence.
“It causes great concern to PDForra that a member representing workers in the spray shop and the old engine shop in the air corp has reported that workers have not been provided with the required level of health surveillance as requested back in 2012.
“If the HSA were to be contacted with a complaint in reference to this request for health surveillance and an inspector were to visit this location, in my professional opinion, the reports of this inspection may prove very damning and would not portray a professional organisation like the Defence Forces in a very positive light and may result in penalisation of some form.”
As the Irish Examiner revealed yesterday, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) issued a report in October 2016 — almost a year after the PDForra letter — in which it identified workplace shortcomings that it warned the air corps were in need of “immediate attention”.
These included the need to put “in place of a programme to monitor employees’ actual exposure to particular hazardous substances”; to establish “preventative and protective measures... in accordance with established good industry practice”; and to provide employees with protective equipment such as goggles and gloves.
In February, as the country went to the polls, the HSA had paid its first visit to Baldonnel to inspect conditions at the air corps headquarters. The association’s second visit took place in April.
By May, following protracted negotiations, a Government was finally formed and the Taoiseach added Minister for Defence to his title. Mr Coveney moved to the Housing portfolio.
That same month one of the three whistleblowers — frustrated at a lack of progress in the investigation into his protected disclosures — contacted the Department of Defence to complain that they had yet to receive any written response from the minister.
“While the minister and the department takes its time over my protected disclosure the men and women within the Irish army air corps continue to be unnecessarily [and] illegally exposed to dangerous chemicals within the workplace,” wrote this whistleblower.
The following September, 10 months after the first protected disclosure was made, another of the whistle-blowers contacted the Department of Defence, again to complain about a lack of progress in the investigation of their allegations.
In this communication, the whistleblower claimed they had not been given any indication as to when an investigation was due to get under way.
In the last week of September, the whistleblowers were told that an independent third party was appointed to review their claims, and were given a copy of the terms of reference of this investigation. Days later the HSA paid its third and final visit to Baldonnel.
In October, the HSA issued its report on conditions at Casement Aerodrome and made findings that apparently vindicated the whistleblowers’ concerns.
“Health surveillance should be among the necessary measures to be considered for controlling identified chemical exposure risks,” states the report, adding 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”.
The HSA told the air corps it needed to make protective equipment available to its employees, including protective gloves, eye protection, and respirators for protection against chemical exposure.
The recommendations in the four-page report require “immediate attention”, said the HSA.
Both the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence were asked to comment on the findings arising from the HSA report, and declined to do so.
More than a year has now passed since the whistle-blowers first raised their concerns, and the Irish Examiner understands that, to date, none of the three has been contacted by the person appointed to review their claims.