6 June, 2013.

The Divisional Office met with Telstra on Tuesday 4 June to discuss issues arising from the NBN-related asbestos incidents that have received publicity in recent weeks.

The Divisional Office requested the meeting following the wider meeting in Canberra on Monday 3 June convened by Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten. That meeting was attended by representatives of Telstra, NBN Co, state and commonwealth regulators, asbestos groups and the union movement. The Divisional Office was represented on that occasion by Senior Industrial Research Officer, Ros Eason.

At the 3 June meeting commitments were given by Telstra in relation to management of the network remediation programme it is undertaking as part of the NBN project. In particular, Telstra has said it will increase its audits of work being done by its contractors and will ensure all those performing this work are properly trained.

The CWU subsequently requested a meeting to discuss the details of these commitments and related questions of concern to our members, i.e.

  • The supervision of work performed on Telstra's behalf by contractors;
  • The training of workers engaged on the remediation project;
  • The presence of asbestos in other Telstra facilities, in particular exchange buildings, many of which are in a state of disrepair and
  • Measures Telstra will take to protect the safety of the general public.
We also sought Telstra's advice on:
  • The implications of the Operations restructure for reporting lines/accountabilities within Telstra in relation to these matters.
  • The current status of the internal Telstra asbestos register.
In response to these questions Telstra indicated the following:
  • Supervision/audits. Telstra announced last week that it would create some 200 permanent roles for auditing specialists. The jobs have already been advertised and are expected to be at CFW7 level. It could be expected that employees at this level would already be familiar with asbestos management and removal procedures. However where necessary Telstra will supply refresher training/retraining. This will not be funded out of the $200 million NBN-related training monies.
  • Training requirements. It is not yet clear just what the scope of Telstra's commitment in this area is though clearly it will involve a re-examination of both the content of any training Telstra requires of its principal contractors and their sub-contractors as well as development of mechanisms to ensure compliance. Telstra will continue to engage with the CWU on initiatives in this area.
  • Asbestos in exchange buildings. Telstra acknowledges the need for a systematic investigation into the state of its exchange buildings, especially in relation to any asbestos-related hazards.
  • Public safety. Telstra indicated that the measure being undertaken to protect workers on the programme were also designed to reduce risks to the public. Telstra have however established a hot line specifically for members of the public who are concerned about possible exposure. The number is 1800 067 225.
  • Reporting lines. Telstra has put former Network Construction Executive Director John Gibbs in charge of the overall asbestos management/removal programme. It is not yet clear however how his responsibilities will mesh with those of the various groups that now make up Operations.

    The newly formed Labour and Contract Group and Assets and Facilities Group, for instance, would both be likely to have some role in the programme although day-to-day operational responsibilities will presumably sit within Customer Service Delivery.

    Defining these roles would appear to be still a work in progress within Telstra. Telstra has undertaken to come back to the CWU with more information on accountabilities and reporting lines as these are clarified.

  • Asbestos register. The question of reporting lines is also important for employees seeking assurances over possible asbestos exposure. The CWU indicated to Telstra that the current media focus on the issue was leading to a number of inquiries from members (and their families) about asbestos-related incidents. There is a need for a centralised and clearly identified point of contact within Telstra to which these members can be referred.

There is also a clear need to ensure that the internal asbestos register is up to date and readily accessible to employees, both past and present. Telstra has undertaken to investigate the currency and accessibility of the register and come back to the CWU on this question.

Further meetings with Telstra will be held as more information on these issues becomes available.