NAVAL personnel strapped vacuum cleaners on the reverse cycle to their heads in order to breathe while cleaning out helicopter fuel tanks.
A former helicopter maintainer at HMAS Albatross has told the South Coast Register he believes he is a “walking timebomb” and it is only a matter of time until he is diagnosed with a serious illness.
The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, spent 30 years in the Royal Australian Navy and was a maintainer on the Sea King helicopters at 817 Squadron at the Nowra base.
It is with the same squadron the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force report concluded Petty Officer Greg Lukes’ exposure to respirable asbestos fibres, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins or a combination of these had in all likelihood caused his cancer. PO Lukes died in 2014.
This is one of many horror stories now being revealed since a report into the death of PO Lukes was made public.
“The report says the exposure was between 1999 and 2014, but it goes a long way further back than that,” the former maintainer said.
“We got the Sea Kings in 1976 and the make up of oils, lubricants, petroleums etc hasn’t changed. It has remained the same.
“I would say those dates were when he [PO Lukes] served on the squadron.
“We were using those chemicals way before that.”
He said personnel taped vacuum cleaner hoses to their heads so they could breathe while inside the fuel tanks.
“To fix something inside the fuel tank or to replace it, we would have to get inside,” he said. “There was no breathing apparatus or anything like that.
“When we started complaining that we couldn’t breathe in there. We managed to get an old Hoover vacuum cleaner and put it on reverse cycle so it would pump out air.
It was like hopping into a little coffin. To get in you had to be tipped upside down.
“We would leave the body of the machine outside and strap the hose to our heads so we could breathe.
“You could be in there all day.
“You have five cells to get in and get all the pumps, floats and valves out before it [the fuel tank] could be removed.
“Of course the tanks had been drained to allow the work but the fumes were potent. And we were in there for hours.”
He also knows of another maintainer who suffered cancer of the pancreas.
He believes the report into PO Lukes’ death could be the “tip of the iceberg”.
“The F111s also had issues and then there the asbestos in the Sea Kings,” he said.
“This could be rife throughout all the squadrons. We all used the same stuff and did the same jobs.
“It may not just be restricted to 817 Squadron.
“A lot of us who worked on the squadrons are worried.
“We are walking time bombs. It is quite frightening thinking about what could surface. The question is when.”
The man revealed his brother, who worked on another Fleet Air Arm squadron, had also died from complications with emphysema caused by another banned chemical, PX-112, which the navy used to retain the shine on its helicopters.
PX-112 was used as a corrosive inhibitor on aircraft after they had been washed.
“He died aged 41,” he said.
“We would wash the aircraft at least once a week and then wipe it down with the corrosive inhibitor [PX-112] which gave it a polish and made the aircraft gleam.
“All aircraft used it. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it came out how serious it was and was banned.
“The cooks even used it to clean and polish the metal serveries in the messes.”
The material safety data sheet since released said personnel should wear rubber gloves, leather aprons, face protection and respirators.
“For all the years we used it, we applied it with bare hands. We were given a bucket and some Chux rags. We would put our hands in the buckets and wipe it down.”
“The former maintainer said shorts were worn when handling the chemical.
“If it splashed on you, it would leave your skin green,” he said.
The inhibitor was applied to every aircraft at least once a week.
“It was quite a nasty chemical. It was said PX-112 even caused respiratory diseases and testicular cancer.”
In response to the report into PO Lukes’ death, Defence said it had made numerous improvements to hazardous chemical risk identification and management strategies over the past decade.
“Defence has also modified work practices to reduce the risk to aircraft maintainers working with hazardous chemicals and to provide mandatory training on hazardous chemicals,” a spokesperson said.