Telstra is relying on the public and its contractors to report pits suspected to be infested with deadly asbestos material, because records of all of the company's pit and duct infrastructure do not go back far enough to cover all the pits, Telstra's chief risk officer Kate Hughes has said.
In late May, following community concern over absestos handling, Telstra downed tools over work its contractors and subcontractors were doing on remediation of pit and duct infrastructure across the country in preparation for NBN Co equipment. This work was required because NBN Co's equipment doesn't fit into the existing pits and ducts.
Work on the pits recommenced in August, after Telstra had retrained contractors, deployed specialists out into the field to oversee remediation work, and the company overhauled its community communication procedures ahead of any remediation work being done in a particular area. The company is currently only allowing contractors with Class B asbestos-handling licences to work on the pits, and Telstra itself will hold off putting its own workers back out in the field until it gets a Class B licence.
Given the scale of Telstra's network, Hughes told a National Absestos Forum in Sydney today that Telstra does have an asbestos register in place to locate and prioritise those pits that have asbestos in them, but the records do not go back far enough to cover all pits and ducts in the Telstra network.
"We do have an asbestos register. Unfortunately when, and it dates back to when we were the Post-Master General, and many of those pits were first laid, none of those records were kept of the content of those pits, and there are literally millions of them," Hughes said.
"Every time we find one containing asbestos containing material, we add it to the register."
Hughes said that if the public does notice a pit in poor condition, it should be reported to Telstra so the company can prioritise it to be assessed for asbestos.
"Unless people tell us about the pits, because there are so many, we can't always assess and prioritise them."
Hughes said Telstra was "very supportive" of the establishment of a telco industry standard for asbestos management.
Hughes said that the asbestos issue first popped up in her first two months in the Chief Risk Officer role, and it was a "baptism of fire". She said that prior to the incident she was unaware of what pits or ducts were, but said she eventually got "neck deep" in the issue.
Although Telstra took full responsibility for the asbestos problem, Hughes said that the company could not prepare for all events and risks it could potentially encounter. She recalled a recent incident of an explosion in a pit in suburban Melbourne that the company could not foresee.
Unbeknownst to us, a natural gas leak, we don't know where from, had caused a build up of gas in our pit and pipe network. A crow, flew into a transformer on a pole above our pit which caused a spark which ignited the gas, which caused an explosion," she said.
"At least one pit was damaged and the fire spread across the footpath, the nature strip and the roadway.
"We are always quite prepared for this. We have safety procedures for managing gas in our network. We're prepared for it. Unfortunately we can't predict where gas leaks will occur and we certainly can't prepare for birds flying into our transformers."