Telstra CEO David Thodey has given the thumbs-up for a national asbestos public health register, while Workplace Minister Bill Shorten said the telco was first notified of asbestos issues in 2009.
Last week it was revealed Telstra subcontractors in Victoria and NSW mishandled asbestos during pit remediation work on NBN sites, forcing local residents to flee their homes.
Telstra subsequently announced it would stop work and recruit 200 workers to supervise contractors' pit and pipe remediation.
Further asbestos hazards have been reported at sites in Ballarat, Perth, Adelaide and Tasmania. Thodey said a total of ten further instances had been reported since Telstra set up a specific hotline last week.
The federal government flagged legislation to address the issue in the form of a national register earlier today. The proposal has received bipartisan support and a bill to establish the register and accompanying national asbestos agency is expected to pass the lower house of parliament today.
Shorten, NBN Co and union representatives held crisis talks with Telstra this morning to discuss a removal program and exposure issues.
More Penrith sites to be tested
Following the meeting, Thodey said setting up the register was important and Telstra was working on clearing asbestos sites in Penrith, NSW.
He said six sites had been cleared in that area, with 14 still needing to be tested, while Telstra expected to test hundreds of thousands of pits in “spot checking” over the life of the NBN project.
“What we need to do is an education program and we talked a lot about that. We need to educate people in terms of what we are doing with potential exposure, processes. We think there’s some good improvement we could do, we’re looking at that right now," Thodey said.
“When you’re running a big company like ours and you’ve got such a big project, compliance is incredibly important. We need to up the ante that our processes have been complied with, we need independent checks, we can’t take any risks with this at all.”
Asbestos issues first raised in 2009
Shorten told Parliament this afternoon he first raised asbestos issues with Telstra during the NBN rollout in 2009.
He said he sent three letters to Telstra that year after being notified of potential asbestos risks by concerned citizens, with the telco promising the matter was under control and providing a "detailed proposition" of the actions it was taking.
Thodey today declined to comment on the cost of the issue to Telstra, repeating his statement to the ASX this morning that the company expected “no material financial risk” to Telstra investors.
Federal workplace safety agency ComCare is also inspecting the work, health and safety systems at Telstra and relevant contractors, while the Office of Asbestos Safety is creating a strategy with Telstra to deal with the safe handling of asbestos.
Telstra has also appointed PriceWaterhouseCoopers to review the telco’s systems and processes, and gave executive director of Telstra Network Construction John Gibbs responsibility for overseeing asbestos compliance and audit outcomes.
Minister Shorten said he congratulated the way Thodey had conducted himself during this morning’s meeting in recognising Telstra needed to “do better than they’ve been doing”.