The Canadian military has a long record of sloppy storage, tracking and handling of hazardous materials – and it puts employee safety, public health and the environment at risk, according to a new audit of National Defence.

The report outlines a litany of problems with how the department is managing toxic and poisonous chemicals – 14 years after the auditor general flagged some of the same serious concerns. Many of the recommendations from a 1999 audit – along with a subsequent compliance review conducted two years later – have not been fully implemented.

During workplace inspections, auditors found controls to be "ad hoc," with material placed outside designated areas and expired product present. The report warns that spills and releases can injure employees, leading to lost productivity, health care and compensation costs, as well as financial claims from retired personnel for illness from previous exposure.

Risky business

Environmental contamination can also mean hefty cleanup and remediation costs and harm to local communities and public health.

"Regulatory non-compliance may result in work stoppages, fines and prosecution against the department, senior management and individuals in positions of command," the report reads. "[Hazardous materials] incidents may also impact community relations, and public confidence in the department’s performance in material management, health and safety, and environmental stewardship."

The audit, based on interviews, site visits to four major Canadian Forces bases, various inspections and data analysis, does not include biological agents, nuclear and radiological materials, or ammunition and explosives. It was completed in December 2012, but just recently released on the department’s website.

Among the findings:

  • Material safety data sheets are required to be updated when new hazard information is available, but weren’t available for 53 per cent of products; 50 per cent of those that were available were out of date.
  • Lack of proper labels identifying material reflects carelessness and disregard for operating procedures, and results in non-compliance with federal regulations.
  • In a sample of 31 storage areas such as flammable lockers, acid lockers and paint stores, 54 per cent of products weren’t recorded in the information database; other instances found missing, extra or incorrectly identified material.
  • Data on holdings, incidents and accidents was not accurate or complete.

DND takes findings seriously

DND said it is committed to the health and safety of its personnel and continually revises procedures and practices in order to maintain safety.

"DND takes the findings of this audit seriously, has reviewed the report’s recommendations and is acting upon each of them," said spokesman Mike Graham.

But NDP defence critic Jack Harris called it "quite disturbing" that such serious gaps have gone unaddressed for so long, even though improvement was identified as a DND priority in 1997.

Harris accused Defence Minister Peter MacKay of focusing on revamping the military insignia and uniforms yet not demanding action on a matter of "significant substance" like this. In the department’s response to the audit, it lays out an action plan with target dates for implementation up to 2017.

"That’s not giving sufficient priority to matters dealing with hazardous, dangerous materials that can cause harm to individuals, cause accidents and damage the environment," he said. "That has to be stepped up and taken seriously and seen to be taken seriously."

Government liability for exposure?

Recalling the massive compensation payments stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, Harris said the government could be liable for huge financial payouts.

"If you’re failing to follow a law, and you’re failing to follow a policy, you’re failing to follow a recommendation from the auditor general or chief review services, then clearly your liability is going to be pretty obvious if someone has a claim," he said.

Liberal defence critic John McKay also drew the comparison to Agent Orange and called it "extremely foolish" to have a casual attitude toward hazardous materials.

"Would any fire department, any police department or any civilian agency faced with handling similar hazardous material be so cavalier?" he asked.

"I dare say no, that any municipality or province faced with this kind of report the citizens would be extraordinarily upset. So I have no idea why our men and women in uniform should face any health and safety standard of care that would be lower than a civilian standard of care. When you sign up, you don’t give up your rights as a citizen and you don’t gratuitously expose yourself to hazardous materials."