Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has claimed that three Telstra infrastructure sites in Queensland being remediated for the National Broadband Network (NBN) were found to have "serious breaches" of safety around asbestos handling.
The minister said that inspectors for Workplace Health and Safety Queensland had uncovered three cases over the past three months where contractors in Banyo, Carseldine and Mackay were not following the correct procedure around the handling of the deadly asbestos fibre.
"At Carseldine, high pressure water was used to clean a telecommunications pit containing asbestos. Debris was observed on the faces and clothes of two workers," he said, in a statement.
"In the other instances, asbestos contaminated dust was left uncontained for five days in Mackay and incorrect safety equipment was used at Banyo."
He said that the department quickly issued notices to the contractors but said that the federal government should have a national workplace safety plan in place for work around the NBN.
The revelation comes after Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Telstra CEO David Thodey, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley and a number of other stakeholders met this morning for crisis talks around dealing with asbestos in Telstra pits and pipes.
In a press conference this afternoon, Shorten said that there would be a national asbestos exposure register set up to allow the public to report suspected cases of asbestos exposure, and there would be a new independent taskforce set up to monitor contractors working on Telstra pits.
The taskforce will be made up of senior Telstra representatives, representatives of Commonwealth and state regulators, industry groups, asbestos victims groups and would be chaired by Geoff Fary, who headed up the Australian government's asbestos management review.
Shorten was full of praise for Thodey, who he said had accepted full responsibility for Telstra's infrastructure.
"Telstra confirmed that it was Telstra's responsibility to ensure that subcontractors performing work in communications pits were adequately trained, properly supervised and they followed correct procedures," he said.
"Telstra [also] reaffirmed its commitment to adequately compensate people exposed to asbestos containing material."
He said that Thodey also committed to reporting back to the government quickly on all infrastructure containing asbestos, and outline a program for removing asbestos-containing material from Telstra's pits.
Thodey said in a statement this afternoon that the stop work on pit remediation will stay in place for contractors until further training on handling asbestos containing material had been completed, and Telstra will assess whether it can prioritise the removal of pits containing asbestos as part of the NBN rollout.
Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon said that the government was not entirely blameless, questioning why Shorten, who had raised the issue of asbestos in Telstra's ducts in 2009 prior to the establishment of NBN Co, had not brought up the issue with Telstra again in the intervening years, and when he took over as workplace relations minister in 2011.
"The attempt to push this all on to Telstra is frankly a lawyer's argument," he said.
Turnbull has stated that should the Coalition win the September election, it would ensure workplace safety procedures are upheld, and claimed that because the policy would be fibre to the node, rather than fibre to the premises, this would require far less disturbance of Telstra ducts.
"The reason why they are digging up pits is because a lot of the pits to take the copper infrastructure are too small to accommodate the fibre. And so this is why ducts too are having to be replaced," he told ABC News Breakfast.
"The virtue of fibre-to-the-node is that all of that infrastructure running under streets, some of which has fibre cement in it and so forth — is basically left as it is and you use that last four, five, six, seven hundred meters of copper infrastructure. You continue to use that, you don’t have to disturb that, but you can nonetheless achieve very high speeds and much higher indeed than people will need or pay for in a residential environment."