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Australian National Broadband Network project put to halt amid asbestos fears


08:23, May 31, 2013

CANBERRA, May 30 (Xinhua) -- Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) project has been put to a halt amid fears that workers may have been exposed to asbestos, a dangerous chemical.

Earlier this week, there have been reports that asbestos safety had been breached at locations including Penrith in western Sydney, prompting the suspension of work on sites.

Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunication service provider, stopped all work and launched an audit of contractors on Tuesday after it found "a number of incidents of non-compliant asbestos management and removal."

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told a committee on Thursday that NBN was leasing pit and duct infrastructure from Telstra and that as part of those agreements, Telstra was required to undertake remediation work before providing the pits and ducts to NBN to use. On Thursday, Telstra deployed 200 specialists to NBN sites around the country and maintaining a ban on all remediation work. Chief operations officer Brendon Riley says Telstra is "deeply concerned" by the situation and will take every precaution necessary to strengthen Telstra's asbestos management.

"These are strong actions reflecting our absolute priority on the safety of our workers, our contractors and the community," Riley said, "This is our responsibility so we will take direct control of all asbestos related activity performed by our contractors."

Riley later announced the company had launched "strong actions" to give priority to the safety of workers, contractors and the community.

"This is our responsibility so we will take direct control of all asbestos-related activity performed by our contractors," Riley said.

A temporary stop on pit remediation at NBN sites announced on Tuesday would stay in place and work would not resume until contractors and sub-contractors had done additional training. Telstra had also established a hotline for residents concerned about work in their area.

Also on Thursday, a major communications union, the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), called for a fund to compensate NBN asbestos victims.

"What we are currently seeing on the NBN project is serious pyramid subcontracting -- the work just gets sublet and sublet and sublet -- resulting in one of the biggest subcontracting scams around," CEPU national NBN construction and project officer David Mier said.

"The federal government blames NBN Co, NBN Co blames Telstra, Telstra blames the subcontractors, and in the end nothing changes, " he said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Minister Conroy had spoken to Telstra chief executive David Thodey and "made it very clear that Telstra does need to act."

"I am in a position to be assured that Telstra is acting," Gillard told reporters in Canberra. Speaking at the parliament during question time, Gillard said, "I do want to emphasise to the house there are not shortcuts when dealing with asbestos.

"All safety procedures must be adhered to."

Gillard said that federal workplace safety regulator, Comcare, was investigating the work, health and safety systems of Telstra and its contractors. The Office of Asbestos Safety had also been tasked with coordinating a national response to the incidents.

Telstra expects to receive the results of a network-wide audit in one day, revealing the state of asbestos work at thousands of the pits and ducts that are being upgraded to build the 34.7 billion Australian dollars (35.7 billion U.S. dollars) NBN.

Given the asbestos issue, there may be some delays at those NBN sites. However, "NBN rollout will continue in other places," as the prime minister put it.

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