The federal government will establish the National Asbestos Exposure Register, following recent revelations of unsafe asbestos-management by contractors working on behalf of Telstra on the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout.
Minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy Stephen Conroy and minister for employment and workplace relations, financial services and superannuation Bill Shorten released a statement announcing the register yesterday (June 3), as well as the formation of an independent taskforce to monitor NBN worksite asbestos management.
This came after a meeting between government officials and representatives from the telecommunications company, NBN Co, unions and victim groups.
“All participants agreed to support an independent taskforce to monitor Telstra’s ongoing actions to prevent exposure to asbestos, including comprehensive training and supervision of contractors,” said the ministers.
Earlier yesterday, Mr Shorten participated in a radio interview with ABC’s Fran Kelly, broadcast on the ABC Radio National Breakfast.
Ms Kelly began by asking if the government was aware of the scope of a problem that had already seen asbestos turn up on Telstra worksites in Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Ballarat.
Mr Shorten said this wasn’t yet clear, though his first priority would be to ensure that both Telstra and the public know which pits have asbestos material and what is being done to ensure it is managed safely.
“Obviously if asbestos-lined communication pits are being disturbed in the process of infrastructure works or upgrading or NBN or anything else then we need to know from Telstra what asbestos is there, which pits contain it and are the procedures in place for removing it absolutely first-class and safe,” said Mr Shorten.
The minister opted against speculating about what could have contributed to any unsafe handling of asbestos-containing material that had already occurred.
“What I do want to do is just make sure that the lesson that some of these residents have had to put up with at some houses in Penrith is learnt so that no one else has to go through it,” he stated.
Ms Kelly asked Mr Shorten what advantages were to be had from establishing a national register – mooted at the time and since confirmed after yesterday morning’s meeting.
The minister said that one thing a register would do is encourage people to speak up if they suspect that they or others may have been exposed.
“I think that experience shows in a range of industrial diseases that if something terrible happens down the track, rather than having to scramble back to reassemble records of what happened when, I think a register does make sense.”