Wednesday, 22 February 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
3. Mr. B. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Defence if an action is being taken by former members of the Defence Forces against his Department for negligence resulting in loss of hearing while in the employment of the Army; and, if so, the total amount of compensation being sought in these cases. [4021/95]
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: How many claims have been settled? Is it the Department's intention to concede all claims from members of the Army prior to 1987 when they were not required to wear ear muffs? After the introduction of the regulation was the Army negligent to the extent that it did not supply all of its members with ear muffs? Will the Army concede those claims? Is the Minister satisfied that the protection provided to members of the Army is satisfactory?
Mr. Coveney: The Deputy raised a great many questions with which I will try to deal. The only information I have about numbers is that in 1994 16 claims from retired and serving personnel were finalised but I will forward to the Deputy the number of claims from retired members of the Army that have been settled.
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: Retired Army members may not be aware that noise induced hearing loss resulted from their exposure to noise while in the Army. I have heard that one legal firm may have as many as 500 claims to be submitted and I am concerned that there may be a certain element of ambulance chasing.  Given that the Department has conceded liability for cases prior to 1987 would he consider accepting liability for cases after 1987 before ear muffs were made mandatory?
Mr. Coveney: I understand the Deputy's drift. The number of claims in respect of hearing loss and of claims generally has increased substantially in recent years; in 1990 the number of claims was 334, the figure was the same in 1991, in 1992 it was 230, in 1993 it was 364 but in 1994 it was 782. There has been a dramatic increase and many of the claims are coming from the same area.
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: Is the Minister satisfied that the present arrangements are satisfactory? It would be preferable for the Department to contact former Army members who may be suffering from noise induced loss of hearing rather than they having to go through the legal process — perhaps a tribunal in the Department could be set up to deal with this issue?
Mr. Coveney: I presume the Department would not necessarily be aware of a claim until the claim has been made and this is generally done through the legal system. Is the Deputy suggesting the Department should try to identify who these people might be and talk to them in a more informal way?
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: Would the medical records of former Army members not indicate if persons have suffered from such a complaint? Surely retired members suffering from a loss of hearing who are not aware of the claims, have rights.
The Deputy also raised a question about preventive measures. As part of the general implementation of the provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare a Work Act, 1989, the military authorities have undertaken a major review of this problem and arising from that, measures have been taken to improve the effectiveness of care of hearing procedures in the Defence Forces.The steps taken include a full examination of training procedures in regard to care of hearing and the implementation of a programme of education of personnel in the importance of care of hearing. Emphasis on such training is being addressed on a continuing basis and is incorporated at all levels of training.A review of methods of training and work practices with a view to ensuring the adherence of all personnel to the appropriate care of hearing regulations and directives has been implemented.
Dr. Upton: How long does it take to process a typical claim? Has the Minister any plans to shorten the length of time it takes to deal with these claims?  Would he agree that the appointment of a claims manager in the office of the Attorney General to deal with these claims on a commercial basis would speed up the time it takes to deal with them and would result in a saving to the economy?
Mr. Coveney: On the question of the average costs of claims, it would not be appropriate to disclose that information but expenditure in my Department on all civil compensation claims was £4.75 million in 1994 and a provision in this year's Estimate is £4.8 million. It would not be correct from the Department's point of view to give out the cost per claim.
Mr. E. Byrne: Will the Minister confirm or deny that some of these claims are from former members of the FCA, Slua Muirí, or the Irish Navy, given the artillery ranges and 303 rifles that young people would have been familiar with in the Wicklow area in that period when there was no ear protection? Have there been claims from members other than full-time members of the Defence Forces?
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: In a recent article it was suggested that the protection provided might not be adequate and that there could be further claims. Can the Minister assure the House that the protection provided is adequate? Will there be an investigation to ensure that this is so?
Mr. Coveney: I am advised that it is adequate. I am anxious to avoid such claims and more anxious to avoid people suffering hearing damage. I will review the matter in the light of the Deputy's question.
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