EDITORIAL: Asbestos burns the NBN

ASBESTOS haunts Australia.

Before it was finally pushed out of use in the late 1980s, the fireproof fibrous mineral had, by virtue of its many useful qualities, found its way into a myriad everyday applications.

But, as is now widely known, when its fibres are inhaled the substance can help trigger potentially fatal lung disease.

In most neighbourhoods asbestos can still commonly be seen cladding houses and covering roofs, and it remains in many unseen places too. It remains, for example, in thousands of sumps and pits installed over decades past as part of the nation’s sprawling web of underground telephone wires.

Left undisturbed asbestos is generally no issue at all, although it is helpful to know where it is present so that, if it has to be disturbed, appropriate care can be taken.

The presence of asbestos in telephone pits and sumps has long been known, and Telstra has had safety rules in place for years for staff working with the substance.

As the federal opposition discovered this week, Labor’s workplace relations minister Bill Shorten had written to Telstra in 2009 and been reassured the issue was under control.

Since then, the massive national broadband network project has been under way, and contractors have been frantically rolling out optic fibre in fortunate suburbs.

This means the problematic pits are being disturbed and, disappointingly, it appears some contractors have not been handling the asbestos as they should have been. Critics of Labor have drawn a parallel with the controversial Rudd-era program to install insulation batts in residential ceilings.

They have a point. In both cases the government has relied on a largely contractor workforce to do rushed work under pressure.

It may be that the haste demanded of the NBN rollout – seriously behind schedule and a political hot potato – was a potential factor in what Comcare chief Paul O’Connor has described as ‘‘a breakdown in contract management systems’’.

Lack of attention to a well-recognised and widespread risk is the charge that none of the parties involved will find easy to avoid.

The government has moved quickly to defuse community anger by establishing a register for people who fear they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres.

That’s fair enough, but the real challenge will be to ensure that the organisations involved in delivering the NBN rollout have learnt their lesson and will re-commit to the proper, established protocols for what will be an immense, long-term asbestos removal program.

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