Drug fumes leave police fighting for lives

LISA DAVIES AND ILYA GRIDNEFF
Last updated 13:59 13/05/2012
Sergeant Hanna
Fairfax Media
AFTERMATH: Sergeant Hanna was in an induced coma for three weeks.

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Three years ago, Sergeant Nader ''Ralph'' Hanna was administered the last rites as he lay critically ill on life support.

What had begun with him coughing up blood culminated in a complete shutdown of his lungs, an induced coma and a total dependence on machines to breathe.

Less than four months earlier, he and fellow policeman Senior Constable Andrew McGrath had been perfectly healthy.

Then came a directive in March 2009 to perform a ''drug audit'' in the Sydney Police Centre's drug exhibit centre.

In the overcrowded 4 x 5 metre room the men, along with colleague Detective Senior Constable Steven De La Croix, were confronted with shelves laden with drugs and other chemicals up to 15 years old.

Some had been used in prosecutions as far back as 1996. The court destruction orders were attached to them but there they had remained, festering in the unventilated room.

The toxic fumes hit the officers as they walked in unprotected, with temperatures of up to 40 degrees only increasing the conversion of liquids and powders to harmful vapours.

Three years on, neither can work, and they are suing the NSW Police Force for damages, claiming severe negligence on the part of their employer. In court documents seen by The Sun-Herald, the men allege they ''were not given any training to conduct a safe audit, there was no mention of any safety precautions, special equipment or what to do in case of an emergency or exposure to drugs''.

''[They] were not issued with masks, gloves or any protective equipment,'' alleges Hanna's statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court.

Hanna also alleges an ''intense strong chemical odour'' was present from the beginning of the drug audit but the concerns he raised to superiors fell on deaf ears.

At one stage, another officer came into the drug safe and told the men: ''You guys look drug f---ed.''

Hanna and McGrath both claim that on March 18, 2009, one particular instance of toxic exposure directly contributed to their dire medical conditions that remain debilitating to this day.

The pair were examining a cardboard box containing 10 bags. Removing one, Hanna saw it contained a bulk beige powder but noticed the plastic bag had disintegrated and a strong smell emanated from it.

He ''instantly experienced a strong burning sensation in his eyes, nose, throat'' as well as breathlessness and ran outside to wash his hands and face. McGrath was affected in the same way and he also noticed a yellow oil on his hands. Initially, their supervisor said the drug was cocaine but the substance was later determined to be methamphetamine, which they were eventually told contained the carcinogen, safrole.

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Hanna claims hazardous material officers visited the scene the following day but would not enter the area unprotected - they donned full protective suits and breathing apparatus in order to remove the toxic substance.

Seeing the potential for further danger, Hanna claims he repeated an earlier request for personal protective equipment in light of the incident but was told there was no budget for that.

As the days went on, Hanna's condition worsened and he experiencing severe headaches, coughing, a burning sensation in his nose and throat, shortness of breath and occasionally tasted blood in his mouth. He went on to suffer a second specific exposure to drug fumes a month later, this time in the high-security bulk drug safe at Sydney police headquarters in Surry Hills.

McGrath did not return to work after the first toxic incident, his doctor advising it was unsafe to do so. His health continued to deteriorate, with severe tightening in his chest, asthma, sleepless nights and anxiety - which only worsened when he was told Hanna was on life support and may not live. Hanna pulled through after three weeks in a coma.

McGrath remains furious at the way he and Hanna were treated.

Hanna's case, now before the Supreme Court, alleges dozens of negligent acts by the NSW police, including failing to provide a safe system of work and protecting the men from the risk of physical, mental or psychiatric injury.

He has also listed more than 50 breaches of the duty of care, expressing frustration that drug audits were done in such a haphazard way.

McGrath has similarly begun the process to sue. His lawyer, David Sylvester, said the case involved some ''deplorable'' conduct by police management.

''Furthermore, somehow the extensive and highly protected CCTV footage of the drug exhibit room, which would have captured the entire incident, has been 'lost' by police - even though it was clear from the outset that the toxic exposure was a very serious incident and the video should have been secured,'' he said.

WorkCover is prosecuting the police force for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act but it has pleaded not guilty. The NSW Police Force has yet to file its defence, and the matter will return to court on May 24.

A police spokesman said the force is considering its position in relation to Hanna's Supreme Court matter. He said it would be inappropriate to comment on the WorkCover prosecution.

''However, what we can say is that we take our obligations in relation to workplace safety very seriously,'' the spokesman said. ''The health and welfare of our officers is of paramount importance.''

-Sydney Morning Herald

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