Telstra pledges strong NBN asbestos controls



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.


  1. I watched the team across the street from me last week when they removed the old pit and put a new plastic one in it’s place, they were in full hazmat gear so obvious precautions were being made.

    But it’s not the pits that are the problem, it’s the conduits, and they are going to be near impossible to replace Australia wide.

    When they are laying the NBN fibres they aren’t using a snake to pull it through, that’s too time consuming and ultimately too costly. Instead they are firing the fibre through via air pressure (this is pretty standard practice by the way). The problem though is the asbestos conduit has started naturally crumbling over the years, and firing the fibre through gives a big cloud of asbestos dust at the other end, not healthy, not healthy at all.

    • “a big cloud of asbestos dust at the other end”

      Oh, jesus. Having read a bit about asbestos in the past several hours … that would seem to represent the worst of all possible scenarios.

      • The shouldn’t be using a compressor to blow asbestos conduits .. a vacuum should be used instead to ensure the dust is contained.

        Having said that how does the poster know it was an asbestos duct???

        Reni, looking at some NBN field reports shows that on any given tranist project a third of the pits are asbestos. 8 million odd pits in Aus… Many hundred thousands of meters of asbestos ducts…

        • “There must be hundreds of thousands of pits in place and tens of thousands of kilometres of conduit in the ground. Unless it is handled within the code of practice [for handling hazardous material] every employee or contractor will have a risk of contracting diseases that won’t manifest for 20 or 40 years.”

          The asbestos that had been used was now old and would crumble easily, he added.

          You do understand the reason the dust within the cable (which I’ll agree won’t be all asbestos, but asbestos will be in it if the conduit contains asbestos which is enough of a concern) is coming out the other end is because they are firing the fibre through under air pressure right? They aren’t cleaning the conduit, the dust coming out of it is simply a byproduct of firing the fibre through.

          Vacuuming the conduit would be a fundamental waste of time since you’re slowing the whole process down and counteracting the point of speeding things up by firing the cable. If you want to avoid the dust, then use a snake to pull the fibre through and at a later date replace the conduit, dust within it and all.

          • They dont “fire” the fibre through with a compressor-the use it to push through blocked sections and push rope through the duct which is then used to haul the fibre behind in instances where for whatever reason they cant push a rod through.

            A vaccy has the same effect when used from the oppisite end (ie suck/pull through the blockage and assist the rope rather than blow/push).

            And again yes it may have been an asbestos duct but you dont have any proof of that and throwing out statments like “a big cloud of asbestos dust” isnt helping anyone.

          • They dont “fire” the fibre through with a compressor-the use it to push through blocked sections and push rope through the duct which is then used to haul the fibre behind in instances where for whatever reason they cant push a rod through.
            A vaccy has the same effect when used from the oppisite end (ie suck/pull through the blockage and assist the rope rather than blow/push).

            Well actually yes, they do. Nothing to do with blockages either.


            And again yes it may have been an asbestos duct but you dont have any proof of that and throwing out statments like “a big cloud of asbestos dust” isnt helping anyone.

            No offence, but this is the sort of situation where stating a problem and determining a solution is how to resolve it, burying your head in the sand and saying if you can’t prove it then it isn’t happening really doesn’t help, not only in this situation but in all situations.

  2. The asbestos issue is a broad problem, present in every infrastructure constructed during the heyday of its use. This applies not just to Telstra’s pits and pipes.

    NBN Co allowed themselves excuses around this issue in their initial 2010 business plan, calling out risks in construction complexities that might cause difficulties or additional costs that could not be fully quantified. These “risks” are now becoming real but still not quantifiable, but they do call into question the optimistic cost per home passed, now baked into the current business case.

    As an (unrelated, except for the issue of asbestos handling) anecdote, I used to work for a telecoms vendor who had to pay 6x the original construction cost of a headquarters building to the demolition company who removed it, to ensure proper handling of the asbestos insulation lining the building. Things do get expensive really quickly around asbestos…

    • @Phillip Stevens

      NBNCo. primarily aren’t the company dealing with this or paying for it other than in some small portion of areas Telstra aren’t remediating. So why would that affect per premises cost for NBNCo?

  3. Telstra (or more appropriately their predecessors) used asbestos no differently to many builders, councils, water authorities of the time – how many people around Australia still drink water delivered from asbestos cement pipes?

    Telstra have records to show the location of asbestos pits and pipes – it may not be 100% accurate (but how many of Telstra’s records are?) you often see it on Dial Before You Dig plans.

    All that the last few days has done is turned something that with appropriate risk and harm controls could be dealt with in an appropriate manner into a major issue blown out of proportion and made to be emotive.

    • All that the last few days has done is turned something that with appropriate risk and harm controls could be dealt with in an appropriate manner into a major issue blown out of proportion and made to be emotive.</i?

      Yep, this. The simple way to do this would be to keep the NBN process going as per it is now. Replace the pits, instead of firing the cable snake it through.

      Then to get the conduits replaced do it on a location by location basis, so long as it's underground it's not too major a problem, so all they need to do is work out where it is and coordinate digging the conduit up and safely removing it and replacing it with other materials. All done in much the same manner as it would be done for removing asbestos from other above ground locations.

  4. Tracing back this story is pretty obvious how it got into the media so quickly.

    The first story was a word for word from a union official (in tasmania). From there it has exploded. This is just unions lobbying for more training and oversight. If they actually cared about the safety aspect they would have just bought it up with Telstra and NBNco, who already have procedures in place.

    Its a tricky on for Labor, because on one side they want to roll out the NBN on schedule and on cost, but they also have to help their mates.

    • CEPU have been in talks with Telstra since April 2011 about training and oversight on the remediation work, so, yeah, they did actually talk to them first. I guess they decided to go public when it came out that Telstra hadn’t actually trained all their workers correctly.

      And are you suggesting the unions aren’t looking out for the safety of their members and are happy to see them die of asbestosis or something?


  5. NBN co are paying Telstra 11billion bucks for the use of their infrastructure. Surely it should be in usable condition ie no one dies from using it or just being in the neighbourhood.

  6. I discussed this issue today at work with some colleagues who specialise in asbestos auditing and remediation. The phrases “scaremongering” and “storm in a teacup” were mentioned. As I understand it, the asbestos is likely to be chemically bound in the concrete, is likely to be the ‘relatively safe’ white form, not the really dangerous blue form, and the risk of adverse effects is extremely low (otherwise we’d be seeing vast numbers of cases every year, because there’s so much of the stuff still around in building materials). Their thoughts were that it should be a routine cleanup, nothing out of the ordinary. The full hazmat clothing is to avoid occupational exposure for people who deal with this stuff every day for 40 years, not people who only get exposed to it when they accidentally break a bit of fibro around the house.
    Re the story timing: front page expose in the Australian the day after NBNco release figures showing they may surpass their current June rollout targets. Coincidence, or message control by the blatantly anti-NBN Murdoch media?

  7. when it seems that telstra assured Mike Quigley/NBNco they had asbestos processes in place, allegedly three times after being queried, i think Malcolm is reaching trying to pin this on NBNco. i also ask myself ‘would telstra have acted any differently if they had been tapped for and were in the middle of an FTTN rollout? i find it difficult to believe there would have been a difference – they would have behaved exactly the same, i dont think it would have been any different had it been the Coalition running the show.

    it comes down to what has happened at these sites – but whatever it was, i believe it really is Telstras obligation to deal with as owner/operator, not NBNcos. if i lease a business office im under the impression its the owners obligation to make sure its a safe premises and there arent any beams going to fall in on my head or indeed, asbestos fibres to inhale? and its not usually at my – the lessee’s – cost to fix it if it is in some way deficient?

    i absolutely agree with the idea that this was always likely to happen at modernisation of Telstras duct infrastructure (and more, we used asbestos all over the shop) and regardless of FTTN/P being the catalyst for the work it would likely have come up as an issue for portions of the network duct infrastructure in any case. in the context of asbestos as a long term Australian issue, i am disappointed Malcolm jumped on it for a political pointscoring pitch, it very much seemed that rather than ‘are residents and workers okay, and can we keep them so?’ his immediate pitch seemed to be ‘use this for another attack piece’ (and conflating Telstra and NBNco responsibilities to do so).

    in any case i would much rather just mess about with the pits once, than go back and stir it all up again – leave the shit buried wherever possible. id be interested to hear what Malcolm thinks of the possibility he rolls a FTTN network, has to deal with these issues, then wants to roll it to FTTH later on and runs into the same thing all over again. admittedly the answer is quite likely to be ‘not my problem!’ given his likely time of retirement will be before extension to homes, but still it would be nice to hear hes at least given it a thought…… even a comment on how it might affect his policy for just the next Federal term, for the fttn portion, and what his contingencies are. id definitely like to hear more from him on it than attack lines.

  8. I have personally managed projects involving asbestos era materials and I can guarantee that any decent company will be very focused on asbestos in ANY job that involves modification and demolition.
    Telstra will have known the extent of asbestos in their system, and they would have included requirements around asbestos in their specifications and scopes that were given their contractors. It is likely that they would have specifically highlighted asbestos in any communications they directly had with their contractors.
    I will bet that if you go back and look at the documentation, Telstra would have been faultless with their official documentation.
    It is also likely that where Telstra fell down is they did not have a compliance program to ensure that the contractors where doing what they were supposed to.
    This is not an unusual problem.In my opinion, Telstra would have been better to seperate the Asbestos handling tasks and contracted them directly to asbestos specialists, rather than letting general contractors have responsibility for them.
    Anyway, Telstra definitely screwed up badly here, but it still amuses me to see the bandwagon that has developed.

    • I agree, looking at it, it seems Telstra’s work practices were up to standard but it all fell apart when you get through Telstra’s contractors to the sub-contractors who are doing the actual work and there has been little to no enforcement of OH&S regulations.

      However, no matter how responsibility is delegated the “owner” or “manager” will always bear some liability for their own projects.

      • In this case, Telstra is both the owner of the pits and the manager of the work to fix them. NBNCo can’t use the pit’s/ducts until Telstra has finished it’s work on them.

        • What project is the work being done for?

          Some responsibility can be delegated but never all.

          • Yes there are issues with Government Liability as the issue dates back to the PMG and Telecom, however not the NBN. NBN has NOT contracted Telstra to actually perform particular work. It is a lease Contract on the Basis of fit for purpose as a package deal. It is Telstra’s responsibility to make it fit for purpose

  9. Have to wonder if the risks within pit remediation that T$ is on the hook for would have ever got to the light of day if the NBN was on the back of it and the LNP weren’t in point scoring mode.

    I think it is a bit duplicitous for the LNP to be worried about the workers……if the NBN hadn’t been coming with Labor in power – there would have been great assistance to keep this under the covers.

    • Or Julie Bishop, in a previous life: “(She) was rhetorically asking the court why workers should be entitled to jump court queues just because they were dying.”

      Meanwhile Pyne is out there and saying that the coalition will just work around the problem by using wireless and satellite.

      • I’m just so disgusted by the current Liberal party and I can’t work out why I used to vote for them! It’s pretty obvious they don’t care about Australians unless you are in the wealthy 1%!

    • Oh well, anything goes, compensation is the same as remidation, anything is alright when you are attacking the liberals.

      • The inference from this paragraph is that Telstra wanted to solve the entire problem, not just the compensation issue:

        The emergence of Telstra’s attempt to get on the front foot on the issue in 2001 comes as the telco agreed to take ”ultimate responsibility” to deal with asbestos used in its infrastructure.

          • Why would Telstra want or need a compensation fund? The reason that springs to mind is they planned to remediate the asbestos pits and pipe and wanted it in case of workers being exposed and needing to claim.

            If they had no intention if touching the asbestos stuff they wouldn’t need a special fund setup would they?

          • Or they were just looking at another method to compensate exposure victims from their infrastructure. There have been cases in the past but just not so many.

          • That is possible but my friends and family who’ve worked for Telstra (some still do) say the number of asbestos compensation claims from Telstra workers is tiny.

          • And you are saying that would be the begining of a a telco who is notoriously poor at maintenance, cheap, stingy, poor customer service, voluntairily removing its asbestos as an alternate without any legislative incentive.

          • Risk minimization perhaps and they were part gov owned back them so acted more like a GBE than private company.

  10. The Howard Liberal Government passed the asbestos liability to ordinary mums and dads they sold shares to without disclosure of liabilities in the Telstra prospectus when they privatised Telstra.
    This is clearly a criminal offence and the Minister/public officials responsible should be brought before the courts.
    It now sets up the situation if remediation costs Telstra shareholders potentially billions of dollars that the Howard Government may be found liable when this matter hits the courts after Telstra ‘s shareholders loose value. Subsequent Governments will be bound to redress shareholders.
    Where does Turnbull think nodes are located? It’s in the very same pits that his FTTN solution will have to use.
    Now the public knows that Telstra pits contain asbestos, there is no way that they can be left where they are. They are going to all have to be remediated regardless of whose NBN is installed and even if no NBN is installed, Telstra workers still have to use these pits and have to be protected.

  11. The Howard Liberal Government passed the asbestos liability to ordinary mums and dads they sold shares to without disclosure of liabilities in the Telstra prospectus when they privatised Telstra.
    This is clearly a criminal offence and the Minister/public officials responsible should be brought before the courts.

    How is this a criminal offense?

    That’s the same as saying I should be able to sue the people we bought my house off because they didn’t specifically advise us that the electrical board outside the house and a few of the inside cupboard walls were made of asbestos, and instead it was found out after we had bought the house.

  12. Something to ponder…

    “THE Howard coalition government was aware 12 years ago there was an asbestos problem in Telstra’s pits and ducts, federal Labor says.
    “The previous government knew all about it, and did nothing about it,” cabinet minister Craig Emerson told Sky News this morning.


    Fairfax Media says the giant telco wanted to create an independent body to accelerate compensation and sought approval from the Department of Workplace Relations in 2001.

    However, the department, [bold]then under the ministerial leadership of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott[/bold], rejected the plan.”

    • Tony isn’t the only Liberal with “experience” with asbestos (Julie Bishop for example), but Tony is a serial offender:

      That’s not the limit of the obstacles to the Coalition exploiting the issue: putting aside Abbott’s shocker of a 2007 election campaign in which he had a go at dying asbestos victim Bernie Banton, there’s deputy leader Julie Bishop’s pre-politics legal role in CSR’s “litigate until they die” asbestos strategy. Source: Crikey

      • Yeah I know, just pointing out the incredibly hypocritical approach being taken here , when HE knew about the asbestos problem 12 years ago when Telstra came with a solution, and HE prevented it from taking place. Now HE is making waves for the Government over it, when HE is somewhat responsible for it being an issue.

        I hope Labor grills him over this for weeks and makes a massive issue out of it, its as bad as the whole Utegate rubbish with Ruddy.

        Overall the Liberals have no rights to make any waves about asbestos. None whatsoever.

  13. Turnbull on yesterdays episode of Lateline stated that the new Liberal Government would not be installing any fibre to the home, that was up to “Future Governments”.
    At last we’ve got the truth from Turnbull. He also stated that Labor’s Shorten was conducting an asbestos scare campaign! Turnbull’s says the Liberals were going to largely leave asbestos where it is. He didn’t explain who was going to be working in the asbestos pits installing his node cabinets and seemed to suggest that it would all be connected up without accessing the pits, he’s obviously hired Samantha Stevens.

    • That funny. We have a Labor government currently, right now, in the present.
      All the writing on the wall indicates that Turnbull will be part of a “Future Government” come September.

    • It is pretty funny. Shortens comments were actually replies to Coalition questions. If they want Shorten to stop his “campaign” all they have to do is stop asking questions (that will ultimately embarrass themselves if they keep dredging up their own credentials on asbestos)…

Comments are closed.