Per ardua ad astra

Per ardua ad astra

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering

Lennon and McCartney 1

imageThe intrepid exploits of jet fighter pilots in Hollywood movies usually rekindles adolescent fantasies and promotes infallibility with beguiling images of virility and perfection under intense pressure. It also reflects the esprit de corps of the Royal Australian Air Force and aligns with its insignia that is loosely translated as…..Through adversity to the stars. Major sporting events, commemorative occasions and defence air shows often featured F-111 Aardvark jet fighters performing spectacular dump and burn manoeuvres, which enthralled many spectators. However, maintaining a fleet of two dozen strike and reconnaissance aircraft was somewhat less culturally aesthetic and it degenerated into a grotesque nightmare for thousands of defence force servicemen, contractors and their dependents. 210

Between 1973 and the start of the new millennium several thousand servicemen and civilian contractors were deployed during the inspection, maintenance and cleaning of two dozen Royal Australian Air Force F-111 fighter jets. This involved overhaul of leaking fuel tanks via a series of scheduled deseal and reseal programs with additional impromptu repairs or sealant rework activities. It required frequent entry into confined spaces with prolonged exposure to a volatile cocktail of aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, carcinogens, flammable solvents, sealants and other toxic chemicals. These included methyl ethyl ketone, benzene, toluene, aviation turbine fuel, strontium chromate and the notorious stench of thiophenol from SR51 and SR51A desealants. 1121

During summer months environmental conditions were often oppressive and sometimes unbearable. Many of the inspections and repairs were performed with insufficient or inadequate personal protective equipment and ventilation was usually ineffective. The maintenance crews at Amberley jet base were colloquially termed the goop troops and became pariahs or social outcasts. Adverse health effects soon emerged, which included dermatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, erectile dysfunction, liver disorders, gastro intestinal problems, cancer and neurological conditions. During early 1999 concerns regarding the ailments were eventually raised by a senior officer in the aircraft maintenance section and spray seal activities were suspended pending further internal investigations. 2225

After Burns night

In January 2000 an internal investigation and review of safety data sheets suggested the symptoms were consistent with exposure to chemical solvents used in the four deseal and reseal programs dating back to 1975. The maintenance activities ceased just after Burns night and a board of inquiry was appointed to conduct an extensive investigation, which commenced in July 2001. Subsequent reports were littered with the distinctive defence department alphabet soup acronyms and disclosed a litany of systemic failures and unsafe work practices. Witnesses provided colourful examples of caring understanding nineties type leadership from the see you next Thursday militaristic management school. Indeed, the maintenance crews experienced plenty of adversity but not too many stars…..Per ardua ad astra. 2631

In September 2001 an interim health care scheme was established for specified conditions pertaining to the formal maintenance programs pending completion of further extensive health studies. The findings established a causal nexus between deseal reseal activities and a range of health conditions, which included anxiety, depression, memory impairment and erectile dysfunction with an increased risk of cancer. This prompted a reactive response from the federal government under John Howard, especially with an election looming. It provided easier access to an improved health scheme, which offered $10,000 or $40,000 ex gratia payments for eligible claimants with specified health conditions. This was supplemented with counselling services and respite care via the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 3238

It beckoned Orwellian doublespeak from the government and the package was duly pronounced as an acknowledgement that specific personnel experienced an onerous and unique working environment. This was not a health based compensation scheme and payments were determined by accumulated service on the four formal programs, which discounted any degree of suffering from chemical exposure. It attracted extensive criticism from many disgruntled victims, especially regarding the prescriptive eligibility criteria. Insufficient record keeping and health surveillance protocols exacerbated the situation and generated major inconsistencies within the claims management process. Ancillary employees involved with the handling of chemicals and support crews performing impromptu pick and patch repairs were deemed ineligible. Their applications were rejected and the dirge from Robbie Burns resonates……Man’s inhumanity to man makes thousands mourn! 3947

Take my breath away

Evidence from victims suggest the reactive nostrum was merely a tyranny of bureaucracy supplemented by customary insurance tactics, which involved the holy trinity of delay, deny and die for managing claims. The scheme was administered without a skerrick of compassion and the faceless panjandrums within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs were described as thoroughbred bastards. The callous indifference was appalling and plaintiffs were left chasing smoke and many remain somewhat despondent. Distressed servicemen became dead men walking and sought solidarity via their goop troop support network. Several victims died pending decisions on their applications and some even committed suicide. 4853

There was no recognised departmental policy or guidelines covering claims management and despite statutory declarations many applications were rejected because the Royal Australian Air Force failed to maintain adequate records. The painstaking war of attrition often proved unbearable and one individual suffering from acute depression was admitted to hospital and placed on suicide watch. During convalescence the treatment included a final notice from Veterans’ Affairs rejecting any entitlements. The commonwealth ombudsman investigated numerous unsuccessful claims and acknowledged the scheme was racked with problems. There were significant inconsistencies with the claims management process and many former servicemen were stripped of any dignity and demoralised. Furthermore, the scientism of extensive health studies increased obscurantism and generated more questions than answers. It disclosed much about what is unknown regarding the acute and chronic health effects of exposure to volatile aliphatic and polycyclic aromatic solvents. Indeed the late nuclear physicist, Ernest Rutherford allegedly claimed……..If your experiment requires statistics you ought to have done a better experiment. 5461

During the initial inquiry a victim’s witness statement was sanitised by federal government legal representatives. The amended document barely resembled the original, which was destroyed without his permission and the plaintiff was instructed to sign the sterilised version, which would expedite the process and receipt of ex gratia payments. It was potentially an indictable offence and tantamount to perverting the course of justice. This was a major finding during the recent Hillsborough independent inquiry and several serious charges have since been laid by the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom. 6267

The living years

Following its 2007 election commitments the incumbent federal labour government launched a parliamentary inquiry. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

was appointed to investigate issues surrounding former F-111 deseal reseal workers and their families. It concluded there was insufficient substantive evidence to prove specific chemicals caused widespread health problems. However, its subsequent report offered an extensive range of recommendations, most of which were accepted by the federal labour government. This addressed many of the anomalies arising from the Howard government’s shallow commitment and shambolic efforts, which cost taxpayers almost $70 million. It would also restore some much needed respect, trust and dignity amongst many of the suffering ex-servicemen and their tormented families. 6873

Eligibility was extended to encompass many neglected victims and entitlements were based on exposure with an acceptance of statutory declarations if work records were inconclusive or unavailable. Assistance and counselling was provided for affected families and prescribed limitations for submitting claims and restrictions imposed on the estates of deceased victims were removed. It also recommended the defence force address structural and cultural issues and improve its occupational medicine capabilities. The government offered funding via a $55 million support package. 7476

An audit and subsequent report from the Australian National Audit Office in 2013 confirmed effective progress covering the implementation of accepted recommendations. However, participation in the scheme from potential beneficiaries was less than anticipated and many frustrated victims may have preferred a lawyer’s picnic and resorted to civil action. The ex gratia payments were effectively pocket money and barely covered extortionate medical expenses. It is somewhat paradoxical that following the James Hardie asbestos scandal its chief executive officer resigned and received a $9 million golden parachute. Indeed, there is ample evidence covering adverse health effects and exposure to organic solvents. During my extensive tenure with Shell UK Oil a cursory glance through the obituary column in the refinery’s monthly bulletin revealed not too many employees reached retirement age. The problem is now emerging throughout the electronics industry in China……Every generation blames the one before and all of their frustrations come beating at your door. 7784

 

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