Minister on defensive in air corps questioning

After a series of revelations in this newspaper, the defence minister addressed the Dáil on air corps health concerns. But he told us what we already knew, writes Joe Leogue.
Minister on defensive in air corps questioning

The Dáil discussion on the health and safety management of dangerous chemicals in the air corps confirmed what we already knew, while leaving a number of questions unanswered.

After two days of revelations in this newspaper, Paul Kehoe, the junior defence minister, took to his feet in the Dáil on Wednesday night to deliver a prepared speech in which he confirmed his department received protected disclosures from whistleblowers concerned about technicians’ exposure to toxic chemicals while carrying out their duties in workshops in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

He confirmed that, following a number of inspections, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) issued a report in which it, in the minister’s words, highlighted “a number of advisory items for follow-up”.

That report came almost a year after the first whistleblower raised the matter with the Department of Defence.

According to Mr Kehoe, these recommendations included “areas of risk assessment, health surveillance, monitoring of employees’ actual exposure to particular hazardous substances, and the provision and use of personal protective equipment.”

All of this was revealed in the Irish Examiner earlier this week. A number of questions remain.

The first case against the State was lodged in 2013, in which allegations were made about the lack of safeguards at Casement Aerodrome.

In the Dáil on Wednesday night, Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers pointed out that the air corps safety management system carried out a safety review at the base and made certain recommendations in 2013.

This newspaper has seen correspondence from PDForra, the organisation representing members of the Defence Forces, in which it refers to concerns being raised by staff in the workshops in 2012.

If concerns and allegations on the safety management of chemicals at Casement Aerodrome have been raised as far back as 2012, why is it that in October 2016 the HSA is threatening legal action unless shortcomings are addressed? What actions, if any, were taken in the years preceding the HSA inspection to protect workers, or to address concerns raised previously?

The next question is why former defence minister Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Enda Kenny — the current Defence Minister — or Mr Kehoe as junior minister have failed to directly contact any of the three whistleblowers in the 14 months since the first protected disclosure was made?

Mr Coveney was sent the first disclosure in November 2015, while Mr Kenny was contacted a month later by a whistleblower concerned at the lack of direct communication with the then- defence minister.

Mr Kehoe said his office wrote to the whistleblowers to inform them of the process under way.

Mr Kehoe revealed that that, “with some difficulty”, he first appointed someone to review the whistleblowers’ claims in July 2016, but that this person was replaced weeks later in September.

What was this difficulty? Why did it take eight months to appoint someone to review allegations that there were ongoing dangerous working conditions in Baldonnel?

Notwithstanding the need to replace the person after a few weeks, why have four months passed without the new appointment speaking with the whistleblowers?

Ms Chambers and Anti Austerity Alliance TD Mick Barry raised this with Mr Kehoe on Wednesday night, but no explanation was given.

Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney have not responded to similar queries from this newspaper.

The HSA report and whistleblowers’ disclosures all raised the issue of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.

Ms Chambers, Mr Barry, and Sinn Féin’s defence spokesman, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, all asked Mr Kehoe for assurances that the necessary PPE such as gloves, eye protection, and respirators have been made available to workers since the HSA report was issued.

Mr Kehoe said he has “asked” that all Defence Force members are given such equipment, but did not say whether this has happened yet.

Were apprentices — some of whom could have been as young as 16 years old — introduced into an environment where they were not adequately trained to use the chemicals required for their jobs?

Did a lack of training contribute to a laissez-faire health and safety culture at Baldonnel? The HSA report stresses that it “is important to create a culture which encourages reporting of minor accidents and incidents from within the organisation”.

Meanwhile, Ms Chambers highlighted the allegations that apprentices were the victims of practical jokes in which they were dumped into baths full of unknown chemicals and an initiation process.

She raised this as an example of how there was a lack of knowledge and training about the seriousness of the dangers of the chemicals.

Mr Kehoe chose to tell the her about the anti-bullying efforts within the Defence Forces, ignoring her argument that it points to a lack of regard for the hazards of the substances involved — perhaps due to an absence of training.

The final unanswered question may be the one the State is afraid to ask: Is there a link between the illnesses suffered by former air corps staff and the working environment in Casement Aerodrome?

Ireland is not the first country to see Defence Forces staff make such a connection.

Similar complaints by Australian Air Forces maintenance staff led to the government there establishing a board of inquiry, commissioning studies to see if there was a link, and ultimately setting up a scheme that has awarded tens of millions of dollars in compensation to workers.

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