Asbestos still a concern in NBN rollout

As the Australian government rolls out the National Broadband Network (NBN), work health and safety standards continue to be a serious concern.

One of the most significant threats to employee wellbeing is the presence of asbestos in pit sites. As the construction of telecommunications company Telstra’s network dates back over a number of decades, many pits and materials were manufactured using asbestos-containing cement.

This issue came to a head last year when Telstra came under fire after investigations revealed some contractors were not handling the deadly material in the correct methods.

“These pits and ducts are owned by Telstra and it is their responsibility to get them ready for the NBN rollout in a safe and secure way,” said Julia Gillard, prime minister at the time. “I do want to emphasise there are no shortcuts when dealing with asbestos. All safety procedures must be adhered to.”

In response to this, Telstra reported in May last year it had hired 200 specialists to investigate poor handling of asbestos.

“Telstra retains ownership of the pit and pipe infrastructure and retains the primary responsibility for the remediation of its infrastructure to make it fit for NBN practice,” NBN Co Chief Executive Mike Quigley told a parliamentary hearing in 2013.

After the initial story broke, Telstra was quick to respond. The communications giant put measures in place to reduce the poor handling of asbestos and worked hard to mitigate any further exposure. This included offering asbestos awareness training to workers through a long-standing partnership with AlertForce.

Telstra pits back in the news

The presence of asbestos in Telstra pits has recently been thrust back into the spotlight after a young girl fell into a Telstra services pit earlier this month.

According to an article by The Herald on November 6, the girl’s mother, Melanie Strempel, was watching her daughter riding her bike when she witnessed the lid to the pit flip open, causing the girl to fall partially inside.

“When we went over to see if she was alright in the bottom of the pit we noticed all the broken bits of asbestos, the pit had deteriorated on the inside,” Ms Strempel told The Herald.

Ms Strempel revealed that she had lost her grandfather to an asbestos-related disease and the incident brought back painful memories.

While it has not been confirmed whether the material in the pit did contain asbestos, Telstra representatives were quick to seal the area with plastic sheeting and put up precautionary barriers. The company will now work to remove the material in the safest possible manner.

Addressing asbestos in Telstra pits

Due to the potentially high prevalence of asbestos in Telstra pits, many workers and some residents are at risk of exposure as the NBN upgrade is carried out around Australia.

Addressing this hazard is a serious concern, which Telstra has approached through education, training and awareness strategies.

Furthermore, the mandatory NBN Safety and Awareness course offers additional training and qualifications for those working on the nationwide campaign. This particular program is designed to introduce students to the NBN project and help workers identify the specific risks they may face.

When asbestos is discovered in a Telstra pit, a specific set of practices and procedures must be adhered to. This will ensure that both workers and the public are not unnecessarily exposed to asbestos while the NBN rollout continues.

No one knows what condition much of Telstra’s infrastructure is in around the country, or how much needs to be replaced before it is fit for NBN Co to lease. This is why caution is important.

Telstra does have a significant number of asbestos-related regulations and practices in place, to ensure the rollout continues to run smoothly.

The first step is for NBN Co and its contractors to inspect the pits and pipes to identify which elements need to be upgraded or fixed prior to the fibre cable installation. At this point, asbestos testing can also be carried out to ensure no work is being performed on or near materials that may contain the deadly fibres.

If asbestos is detected in a pit, Telstra requires workers to follow a strict set of procedures, put in place to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure. These include:

  • The site must be barricaded to ensure the public and other workers are kept at a safe distance
  • Signage must be visible to warn of the asbestos risk
  • Asbestos removal must only be carried out by a trained professional
  • Those directly involved in the clean-up need to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including asbestos-rated masks, goggles, disposable coveralls, boots and gloves
  • The pit will be thoroughly wet down to prevent dust and airborne fibres
  • Once the material has been removed, it needs to be sealed in specially designed asbestos disposal bags
  • Protecting clothing and equipment must also be disposed of in sealed asbestos bags
  • Only once all material is removed from the site should the signage be taken down and work commenced on the new pit installation
  • Protecting health and safety on the NBN

There are many potential risks to health and safety when working on a telecommunications upgrade. Beyond the asbestos risk outlined above, workers need to remain alert and on guard to protect against injuries related to electricity, falls from heights, engulfment and traffic accidents.

Understanding the hazards that could put you at risk is vital to ensuring you can go home safe to your family each work day. However, when working on a remote or rural Telstra site, it may become difficult for you to travel into a major centre to undergo training.

This is why AlertForce offered the NBN Safety and Awareness course online. Accessing the training via the internet gives workers in any region the ability to earn this mandatory qualification. Once the course has been completed, you will need to also obtain a CPR certificate which can only be undertaken through instructor-led training.

Fortunately, this component is typically easy to arrange due to being an important part of many work health and safety courses – which means you can find the training time and place that suits your needs.

For more information on the online NBN course or to get qualified in asbestos removal, talk to the AlertForce team today.

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