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Focus on Military

A career like no other brings risks like no other

David Johnston-Keay is a specialist in Ministry of Defence (MoD) Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) and disease claims. Here, he takes an in-depth look at the risks our servicemen and women take in a career like no other.

There are just short of 200,000 Armed Forces service personnel currently serving, and a further 32,000 trained reserves in the UK. Those on the frontline deliberately put themselves in harm’s way and it is, perhaps, no surprise that injuries occur. However, soldiers, sailors, and airmen are not just frontline troops, but nurses, carpenters and engineers so the range of injuries that occur are as diverse as the variety of roles available.

In the latest set of statistics published by the MoD, it was reported that over 2,500 service personnel were medically discharged on account of their inability to fulfil the strict standards required of active service.

In the same period, nearly 1,400 claims for compensation were brought by current or former service personnel as a result of injury. A significant number of those claims arose from hearing loss from weapons fire and over a hundred claims were brought for non-freezing cold injuries, which you’ll read more about further on in the magazine. However, it is those service personnel who are recorded within the statistics as ‘other new claims’ that are particularly interesting to me as a disease lawyer, especially where weapons and the battlefield have little to do with the cause of the injury.

Caring For Our Clients

The work we see at Irwin Mitchell is varied, reflecting the unique range of roles that employment in the Armed Forces brings. I am frequently instructed by current and former personnel who have served in the engineering sections of the three streams. In the course of assembling, maintaining and working with military defence equipment, vehicles and property, engineers are exposed to a variety of substances which can be potentially hazardous to their health.

The MoD spends significant sums of money providing personal protective equipment, by acquiring state of the art, cutting edge technology and through developing and deploying systems and checks to prevent injury. Sadly, sometimes things go wrong and when they do, the effect on the serviceman or woman involved can be devastating.

I can call upon the experiences of many past clients to evidence just that. I previously acted for a former soldier in his 30’s involved in the upkeep of seagoing transportation. He was involved in the renovation of mexeflotes protecting them from erosion caused by weather and water. He did so by painting them with an isocyanate based paint in far from ideal conditions.

Unfortunately, a failure to provide suitable ventilation and the absence of effective respiratory protection led to the soldier developing asthma for which he was medically downgraded and ultimately discharged. As a result, a 14 year service history was cut-short. A financial settlement was agreed shortly after court proceedings had been issued, but no amount of money could bring back the military career he had worked so hard for.

Risks A Plenty

I act for a number of other clients who have developed respiratory injuries or rhinitis problems because they are using hazardous chemicals in unsuitable conditions or without suitable protection, and where well-designed plans, systems or risk assessments have not been followed. No soldier, sailor or airman would think twice about doing what was necessary in difficult situations where there is no time for a risk assessment or to talk things through. Training takes over. But where the risks are known and the employer has not taken steps to reasonably safeguard against these, then this needs to be investigated.

I also acted for a former engineer engaged in the construction of aircraft hangars in Afghanistan. Conditions were understandably difficult and a team of extremely fit men and women were required to build structures of significant size, erecting the skeleton by manually winching the frame into place. Clearly that work required a significant level of effort, commitment, and teamwork under severe pressure. This particular client developed a shoulder injury with an uncertain long term prognosis as a result of this work. A system of job rotation was not implemented and a failure to follow an existing method plan led to the development of an entirely avoidable injury.

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen are not just frontline troops, but nurses, carpenters and engineers.

Engineers and vehicle technicians are particularly vulnerable to the dangers associated with exposure to engine oils and diesel. The latter has long been linked to chronic respiratory illness and the former is a well-known cause of dermatitis.

We have also been instructed by service personnel who have developed a respiratory injury as a result of their service accommodation in which they are living. Here, a simple failure to maintain the homes of those living in the barracks has affected far more than just morale.

No amount of money could bring back the military career he had worked hard for.

Many of those who instruct us perceive their injury to be a minor one. However, it often transpires that it is significant enough to result in a medical downgrade and regularly, their discharge from the Armed Forces.

The rest of our team and I are in awe of those who serve and have the utmost respect for those who put their lives on the line for their country. I have not served in the military, but my Granddad served in the Royal Marines and my dad served in the Royal Air Force.

I am part of a very dedicated team of solicitors who help those injured in the course of service. By helping injured soldiers, sailors and airmen in the way that we do, often by helping them make a fresh start in civilian life, I like to think I am doing my bit.

Published: May 2018

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Spring 2018

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  • David Johnston-Keay
  • Senior Associate Solicitor
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