Asbestos issue weighs on Telstra

Telstra has taken responsibility for asbestos remediation works on telecom pits and ducts, after a series of scares over the deadly substance led the federal government to seek reassurances.

The telecommunications giant has appointed PriceWaterhouseCoopers as independent advisers to help review its systems and processes, and also selected 34-year Telstra engineering veteran, John Gibbs, to oversee all asbestos management activities

The appointments follow allegations that Telstra had cut corners before handing over the work sites to the national broadband network builder NBN Co.

Mr Gibbs, who is the executive director of Telstra Network Construction will now  oversee all asbestos management activities, including current compliance and outcomes from last week’s contractor audits.

Following a meeting of federal, company and union representatives in Canberra on Monday, workplace minister Bill Shorten said a national taskforce would be set up to monitor exposure prevention and the training and supervision of contractors working on the NBN rollout.

The independent taskforce will include senior Telstra representatives and officials from commonwealth regulators. State regulators will also be invited to take part.

Mr Shorten said Telstra chief David Thodey had expressed disappointment and accepted the company had "ultimate responsibility" for the way it handled the remediation works.

"People in streets, in the suburbs in Australia, are feeling an anxiety which they shouldn't have to feel," Mr Shorten said.

"The training standards which were promised have not been delivered in all cases; the protocols which were promised around safety do not appear to have been honoured in all cases.

"Promises that have been made have not been kept."

No cut corners

But Mr Thodey strongly rejected suggestions the company had been cutting corners.

He said six pits in Penrith, in Sydney's west, had been cleared, with 14 more to go.

Telstra had literally "hundreds of thousands of pits to remediate" for the NBN project, he added.

Asbestos was found last week at a Telstra pit in Penrith in Sydney, and further discoveries were made at telecommunications works in Ballarat, Perth, Adelaide and Tasmania.

On Monday the Queensland government said asbestos had been discovered at three NBN work sites, which might necessitate a full-scale sweep of NBN sites across the state.

Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie warned a class action could be launched against NBN Co or the commonwealth and said Mr Shorten had to take responsibility for the workplace safety breaches.

"This is an absolute botched debacle again by a federal government," Mr Bleijie said.

"We saw it with the home insulation debacle we had a few years ago."

Asked where Telstra's responsibilities ended and NBN Co's began, communications minister Stephen Conroy said it was when Telstra, which was contracted to remediate the pits and ducts, handed them over to NBN Co.

"NBN Co have not sought to dodge responsibility," he said.

"They take asbestos issues very seriously."

No financial risks

Telstra earlier on Monday told the Australian stock exchange it believed it did not face financial risks from people potentially exposed to asbestos.

The government has set up a register for people to lodge claims about possible exposure.

"Anyone who has any concerns about being exposed to asbestos, ring us now," Mr Thodey told reporters.

Of the 30 asbestos-related issues in telecommunications pits incidents recorded since 1996, two-thirds had occurred since January and almost half had occurred in the last six or so weeks.

New laws passed the lower house of federal parliament on Monday to set up an independent body - the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency - to eliminate asbestos-related diseases.

Australia would become the first nation to take such action against asbestos diseases, which are forecast to kill more than 700 people in Australia this year.

Govt could be liable for asbestos: Comcare

The commonwealth government may be liable for asbestos breaches associated with the NBN rollout, the head of the federal workplace safety body says.

Comcare chief Paul O'Connor has told a senate estimates committee there has been a spike in asbestos complaints this year, blaming it on a breakdown in contract management systems.

"What we have seen in recent weeks is an unfolding of a number of very serious apparent failures of the cascading of those contractual arrangements," he said on Monday.

Asked if the commonwealth could be liable for the breaches as part of the chain of responsibility, Mr O'Connor said: "At a general level, yes".

"I won't venture a specific answer," he said.

"But as the legislation is designed it does stand to reason that the commonwealth of Australia as an entity is potentially liable as well?" Liberal Senator Eric Abetz persisted.

"That is my understanding," Mr O'Connor replied.

The Comcare boss said of the 30 asbestos-related issues in telecommunications pits incidents recorded since 1996, two thirds had occurred since the beginning of January this year - and almost half in the past six or so weeks.

He questioned whether some workers in the telecommunications pits had been adequately trained to deal with asbestos.

"While the ticks in the boxes at a corporate level might be OK, it's tracking those obligations right through the contracting chain - through to the principal contractors, and through them to the contractors who have actually got their workers out in local communities around Australia," Mr O'Connor said.

There is concern Telstra subcontractors weren't properly handling asbestos uncovered on sites in Sydney, Ballarat, Perth, Adelaide and Tasmania.

Mr O'Connor said that in a series of complaints relating to work at Mt Clear in Ballarat, there had been reports of inappropriate handling of asbestos material and dumping of contaminated soil.

He said Comcare believed the earlier stages of the NBN rollout had been free of asbestos-related incidents, but they would "go back and test and verify all the previous work".

"We will be asking Telstra and NBN Co and its contractors to be able to demonstrate that earlier work was in fact done well," he said.

"We understand there is about 40,000 pits that have been remediated, and on the face of it, most of that work was conducted safely and appropriately." 

With a staff reporter