news The nation’s biggest telco Telstra has announced a wide raft of new measures designed to ensure safety around the handling of dangerous asbestos materials in its pits and pipes, as concern continues to grow regarding the issue unearthed by the rollout of the National broadband Network.
In a statement yesterday, the telco noted that it had appointed accounting and consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers to act as its independent advisor in reviewing Telstra’s systems and processes around the handling of asbestos in the company’s infrastructure. In addition, the telco noted that it had appointed its executive director of Network Construction, John Gibbs, to oversee all asbestos managment activities. Telstra described Gibbs as one of Telstra’s most experienced executives leading complex and large scale construction and engineering projects across Australia.
The news comes just days after Telstra last week announced that it would appoint a new field workforce of up to 200 specialists to directly inspect and supervise all asbestos-related remediation work, as well as imposing mandatory Telstra-designed training for all contractors and sub-contractors working with the telco’s infrastructure.
The telco also issued a temporary stop work order on remediation of its pits and pipes (work that is being carried out to ensure the NBN build can use Telstra’s infrastructure), until asbestos training can be completed, as well as committing to engage with the wider community about work in their areas involving asbestos.
Telstra chief operating officer Brendon Riley said: “Telstra continues to take major steps to confirm best practice in asbestos management by its employees and ensure that all contractors and sub-contractors meet the same high standards under the Federal Code of Practice.” “Our highest priority is the safety and peace of mind of our staff and the community. We will work closely with the Federal Government to do our part in dealing with asbestos risks alongside other industries with potential exposure. We have acted decisively by implementing extra checks, controls and training and adding significant extra people and resources to reassure the community when it comes to our work in the field.”
However, the telco continues to come under pressure from various sides involved in the debate over asbestos historically used in its infrastructure.
Today the telco will meet Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, with Federal department, union and NBN Co. representatives in Canberra tomorrow to support a broader coordinated approach to asbestos management in Australia. The ABC has reported that Shorten may push for a fund to be set up for those who believed they may have been exposed to asbestos.
Telstra’s main union, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), has called for such a fund to be set up to cover all workers who had been exposed to asbestos while working on Telstra’s infrastructure.
“Telstra must also provide training and certification in asbestos handling to all workers and contractors working on asbestos sites, said CEPU NSW assistant secretary Shane Murphy in a statement issued late last week. The telco also needed to set up a fund to cover future medical costs emerging from its poor management of asbestos, Murphy added.
“The impacts of this mess will be felt decades into the future – Telstra needs to take responsibility for the health impact on its own workers as well as the broader community.”
Over the weekend, the Financial Review reported that three government agencies (Comcare, the Environmental Protection Agency and WorkSafe Victoria) were investigating allegations that “more than 80 truckloads of untreated soil contaminated with asbestos were dumped in Black Hill, Ballarat, by Telstra contractors building Labor’s $37.4 billion NBN”.
This morning Telstra issued a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange noting speculation by the AFR that the the telco could face potential liability action from residents who had been exposed to asbestos.
Telstra chief executive David Thodey said: “We have been managing the risk of the asbestos within our network for many years. Telstra has processes for managing claims of any type from employees and the public to ensure that such claims are handled sensitively and expeditiously. We take our responsibilities very seriously in looking after our employees and the community and our highest priority is their safety and peace of mind. Should we form the view that there is a material financial risk to the company or any other material information that is required to be disclosed to the ASX under the Listing Rules, we will take immediate action to notify the market. We do not believe this to be the case at this time.”
Speaking on Sky News this morning, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he acknowledged that Telstra had an obligation to safely remediate its old pits and pipes to allow the NBN’s fibre to be installed. However, he added: “But I don’t think NBN Co can wash its hands of this.”
“The fact is that the asbestos issue has been known for some time and it’s worse than that, it’s always been on the table, and NBN Co should have been more vigilant in overseeing this. And of course there is work being done with that old infrastructure on NBN Co’s account where it actually has to be expanded or as they say augmented, so I think both management at NBN Co and at Telstra should have paid more attention to this.”
Turnbull said that he supported the idea of a register that those who believed they had been affected by the asbestos issue could add themselves to. However, the MP said he didn’t believe a formal fund was necessary at this point. “I don’t think it’s financially or legally necessary because I don’t think Telstra’s about to restructure its business and move to Holland or anything like that as James Hardie did,” Turnbull said. “Telstra’s a huge company, it’s got very substantial resources so I don’t think a would-be plaintiff in the future would need to be concerned that Telstra won’t have the ability to pay its bills, meet its obligations.”
It’s fascinating to me that this asbestos issue with Telstra appears to have just come out of nowhere. A week or so ago the media as a whole didn’t appear to be aware of the issue; and yet suddenly we have maps of locations around Australia being earmarked, stringent new controls being placed around duct remediation, and even the infamous words “James Hardie” being brought into the discussion. Surely Telstra and perhaps NBN Co must have had some knowledge of this situation years ago.
I’m not personally sure — I don’t have the background or the evidence to know yet — to what extent asbestos truly is an issue in Telstra’s infrastructure. And I don’t think we’ll know the full extent of the problem for some time. I do want to apologise to readers for underestimating this issue last week. It initially looked like this was a small issue limited to a few geographies; but now it appears the asbestos/NBN issue may be much more serious nationally.
However, what I do think is that this is precisely the kind of issue which only raises its head when we really get into the details of deploying fibre — to the node or to the premise — in Telstra’s existing infrastructure. What we are seeing here is the realisation of the fact that the FTTP/FTTN debate about the NBN may have been something of a furphy all along. The real issue, and it’s going to be an issue lasting several decades, it is increasingly looking like, is the ongoing remediation of Telstra’s network infrastructure in general — not just cables, but the physical pipes, pits and ducts where those cables are laid.
You can see this in the asbestos issue because it’s a very old type of material that hasn’t really been used in Australia for a long time. According to Wikipedia, which has a great and very detailed article on the subject, Australia phased out asbestos starting from 1989, and ceased mining asbestos in 1983. Concern had also been around since the 1970’s about the use of the material in building construction, and the actual diagnoses of asbestos-related illnesses dates way back to the 1920’s and 1930’s.
What this shows us is that much of Telstra’s physical network infrastructure hasn’t gone through significant remediation and modernisation works for decades. This is, perhaps, the real task facing Australia’s telecommunications industry, especially Telstra and NBN Co, right now — not deploying the NBN per se, but getting our national physical telecommunications infrastructure as a whole up to spec so that the network can be deployed. And I suspect that it will take a lot longer than anyone — even now — really expects, whether you use a FTTN or FTTP model. This is deep and complex stuff which will require a sustained effort to deal with.