Contractor asbestos supervision 'not sufficient': Telstra

A preliminary review by Telstra identified “specific areas for improvement” for contractor handling of asbestos and has directed all contractors to carry out improvements

Telstra has directed contractors to improve asbestos handling procedures after a review by the telco found deficiencies in the way the fibrous material has been treated during the remediation of its pits and pipes.

Some 10 to 20 per cent of Telstra’s pits are estimated to contain asbestos, with remediation work for the National Broadband Network (NBN) temporarily ceasing due to concerns around asbestos handling.

A preliminary review by Telstra identified “specific areas for improvement” for contractor handling of asbestos and has directed all contractors to carry out changes before remediation work recommences.

The review found overall supervision by contractors of their staff and subcontractors was “not sufficient in all cases”. It also found contractors may not have had adequate supplies to deal with asbestos and that community engagement needed to be improved.

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“Telstra expects its contractors to comply with their agreements otherwise they will not remain key suppliers to Telstra,” the telco said in a statement.

Telco analyst Paul Budde said the health implications of handling asbestos should be incentive enough for contractors to handle material carefully.

“So unless you are stupid, it is in your own interest to follow the procedures,” he told Computerworld Australia.

“It is one of these things [where] sh*t happens. It is how you deal with it [that matters] and I think all parties involved are showing a sensible approach.”

Telstra has instructed its contractors to strengthen supervision staffing in the field and oversight of contractors; improve asbestos induction procedures for new staff and ensure contractor and subcontractor staff are trained in asbestos management; provide information to Telstra about asbestos handling and removal procedures by subcontractors; and work with the telco to improve community engagement in remediation areas.

“We will continue to be open about the status of these issues and the work we are doing to strengthen contractor management of asbestos handling,” Brendon Riley, chief operations officer at Telstra said in a statement.

“We will not allow recommencement of cement pit remediation work until we are satisfied the necessary safety measures are in place.”

While Telstra's review has not been made public, Guy Cranswick, advisor at IBRS, said “the prevailing view is that transparency is best as it reduces rumour and shows the corporation is being highly responsible”.

Telstra has committed to add up to 200 specialists to inspect and supervise asbestos remediation work of its pits and pipes. Cranswick said these inspectors would ensure there were added layers of information reporting and said the action plan by Telstra will help to improve contractor processes.

Telstra has been quick to accept responsibility for asbestos mishandling, with Telstra's CEO David Thodey previously saying there was a “zero tolerance” with contractors.

However, Cranswick previously said NBN Co should take some of the responsibility for the asbestos mishandling issue.

He said while Telstra should have had greater managerial oversight on how to handle asbestos instead of just “reacting” to it, “I think this is quite simply a human error of quite large managerial proportions”.

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