Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
QUESTION NO: 353
To ask the Minister for Defence the actions he, his officials, the Chief of Staff Branch, Air Corps headquarters and or the State Claims Agency has taken to investigate the reasons for the non-compliance with the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts 1989 and 2005 at the Air Corps as stated by the Health and Safety Authority investigation which concluded after nearly three years in September 2018; and the steps taken at all levels to ensure the same failings to do not occur again in the Air Corps or the other branches of the Defence Forces. [16654/20]
Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
I wish to assure the Deputy that the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority for me, my Department and the military authorities.
The Deputy will be aware that following three inspections at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel during 2016, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) issued a Report of Inspection to the Air Corps on 21 October, 2016. This report listed a number of advisory items for follow up, including the areas of risk assessments, safety statements and the provision and use of personal protective equipment.
The resultant Air Corps improvement plan confirmed the Air Corps’ full commitment to implementing improved safety measures that protect workers and ensure risks are as low as reasonably practicable.
The Air Corps improvement plan was implemented over eight phases, which the military authorities have advised are now complete, with phase eight, chemical awareness training and respiratory equipment training, being a continuous process.
The HSA has formally noted the high level of cooperation received and the considerable progress made to date by the Air Corps in this regard and their investigation is now closed.
A wide range of other measures are in place to ensure the health and safety of those serving in the Air Corps including monitoring exposure levels, conducting annual occupational medical screening, audits and training.
As the health and wellbeing of the men and women working in the Air Corps is a priority, the former Minister ensured that allegations relating to exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps in Baldonnel were independently reviewed. The independent report considered the Defence Forces health and safety regime, its current policy and its application and made a number of observations including in relation to documentation, health surveillance, and exposure to monitoring. The report was published on the Department’s website following its circulation to those who made disclosures.
The Air Corps and the wider Defence organisation is committed to complying with health and safety legislation. The organisation is proactive in ensuring that the best standards are adhered to in order to ensure that the risk to human health is as low as reasonably practicable.
The Deputy will appreciate that as litigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
It would have offered some small comfort to survivors of the Irish Air Corps chemical exposure tragedy if the recently re-appointed Minister Coveney had stated that the health & welfare of former personnel who served at Casement Aerodrome was also high priority for him, his Department and the military authorities but alas he chose not to do so at this time.
In terms of the “high level of cooperation” and the “full commitment to implementing improved safety measures” we must be very clear, the Health & Safety Authority threatened legal action if the Irish Air Corps did not comply with their instructions to improve conditions at Baldonnel.
To say there was a high level of cooperation is nonsense because the Air Corps had no choice but to comply. It is akin to a drunk driver crashing into a cafe & injuring scores of people then having a judge praise their cooperation once caught.
Calling the orders of the HSA “advisory” is also a subtle attempt to downplay the seriousness of the problems discovered. But yes issuing PPE such as gloves, respirators, eye protection and also providing chemical safety training 28 years after they became mandatory is indeed “great progress”.
But why was no disciplinary process started within the Defence Forces to hold to account those in management who presided over the decades long health & safety shambles?
Current Irish Air Corps compliance with workplace Health & Safety legislation is merely a veneer. There has been no change to safety culture and the Formation Safety Office is severely under resourced and with no dedicated H&S enforcement personnel.
Surprisingly, Vice Admiral Mellett told an Air Corps campaigner recently that it is difficult to change the safety culture of an organisation like the Air Corps. If only the Chief of Staff ahad powerful enforcement tool at his disposal such as military law to force such a culture change through quickly?
When there is a will there is a way, unfortunately decades on from the Army deafness scandal, the insular Defence Forces still don’t understand true Health & Safety from the bottom to the very top of the organisation and without proper understanding there is no will to change.
In terms of the independent third party investigation it was neither independent nor third party. While there may have been initial attempts to find an independent third party specialist with toxicological or chemical experience, the last government eventually decided to appoint a recently retired barrister from the office of the Attorney General. This is an office of the state that is being sued by former Air Corps personnel so by no stretch of the imagination was this investigator independent nor third party, he was a retired civil servant still on the payroll of the state.
The so called “O’Toole report” is striking because the investigator states at the very start of the report that he was not qualified to undertake the investigation he was tasked to carry out.
My expertise is in the area of law and in carrying out this review it was my intention to examine compliance by the Air Corps with the relevant law and regulation. I was not in a position to consider the substances in use or any implications for human health arising from such use as these issues are outside my competence. The allegations concern both the current health and safety regime and compliance with that regime in a period stretching back over 20 years.
That Minister Coveney can point to this investigation as something worthwhile is stretching credibility. Essentially, the reason for appointing O’Toole was to slow down the need for a political response to the problem and to ultimately justify doing zero to help save lives & reduce suffering of exposed Air Corps personnel.
The “O’Toole Report” officially known as the “Report of the Independent Reviewer – Protected Disclosures – Air Corps” can be read in full via the link below.
The Risk Management Section of the State Claims Agency audited Irish Air Corps compliance with Health & Safety for a decade before the Health & Safety Authority were forced to intervene to stop the ongoing unprotected exposure of the workforce to carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants & toxic chemicals at Casement Aerodrome.
The HSA file was opened in January 2016 and was only closed in September 2018 but the “superb” health & safety performance of the Air Corps for the decade prior to HSA intervention allowed the State Claims Agency & NTMA to justify discretionary performance-related payments for their own personnel & senior management.
The State Claims agency earned bonus pay for improvements in Air Corps health & safety risk profile while the very same same Air Corps continued to seriously harm serving personnel through lack of even the most basic health & safety measures.