Earlier this century the Australian Defence Force established the F-111 Deseal-Reseal Health Care Scheme to compensate workers who may have been affected through exposure to chemicals while cleaning F111 fighter aircraft between 1977 and the late 1990s.
A parliamentary inquiry has been established to further investigate the issue of compensation. In the 29 July 2008 edition of The Australian newspaper details of the work exposures have been restated.
“More than 800 RAAF personnel were forced to do the work on the fuel tanks, removing old sealant using chemicals.
The work was done because of a basic flaw in the design of the aircraft — their fuel tanks did not include a bladder, and the sealant used on rivets to stop leaking had to be replaced at regular intervals.”
Details of the impact of this work on workers and their families have also been restated. Ian Fraser, Queensland president of the F-111 Deseal-Reseal support group has said that
“former workers now suffer temper swings, drug abuse and broken marriages — and some had committed suicide.
A significant number have died from cancer, which Mr Fraser’s organisation says is directly attributable to them being made to work with the chemicals — particularly one known as SR51.”
Those OHS professionals who have read Professor Andrew Hopkins’ book “Safety, Risk and Culture” should be familiar with the case as Hopkins investigated the issue and devoted a chapter to his book on the F111 Deseal/Reseal process. A review of the Hopkins book is available online as is a useful article by Hopkins on safety culture.
It is worth remembering that exposure to chemicals and inadequate protection is not something from the developing nations or from Western industrial history. These workers faced unacceptable risks within the last twenty years.