The Telstra "debacle" has put the asbestos debate back into the news with comments by Malcolm Turnbull, the opposition communications spokesperson,and $10.5 million pledged for asbestos protection by the Federal Government as reported in The Age on 19th June.
Press reports on National Broadband Network (NBN) work by Telstra contractors involving asbestos cement pits include allegations of poor asbestos handling, works being shut down, suspension of contractors, contamination of domestic premises and dangerous debris on worksites. This has led to a proposal for the development of a nationwide audit and register, calls for a fund for workers and residents similar to the fund set up for James Hardie workers and auditing of work procedures by 200 asbestos specialists.
With all this attention we still have no idea exactly what went on with these pits that created such a mess. No air monitoring data or assessments by occupational hygienists or other scientific experts capable and responsible for objectively assessing the risk have been sighted.
We have a significant body of airborne asbestos fibre measurement data indicating that elevated exposures to asbestos fibre do not occur with minor works on asbestos cement products like Telstra pits without gross disturbance of the asbestos cement material. For example, uncontrolled cutting or drilling using high speed power tools. Use of uncontrolled power tools is prohibited under OHS and WHS regulations whereas work on asbestos materials with hand tools is permitted subject to specified controls.
No reports have been seen of power tools being used or of contractors being prosecuted by Comcare or NSW WorkCover for illegal work processes. When questioned about the issue NSW WorkCover reported that Comcare is investigating the matter and would not comment further except to defer to the Comcare asbestos line who referred the question to others within Comcare (who at the time of writing had not responded).
With this in mind, the question many occupational hygienists are asking is - If the reports in the press are accurate, how did work on asbestos cement pits create an elevated exposure risk that extended to residents homes?
Builders recently misinterpreted a JTA asbestos report which led to significant unplanned delays due to asbestos materials identified in the report not being picked up by the builder. These sort of communication problems and a lack of understanding of the risk assessment processes can lead to issues with asbestos and also SMF, lead and chemical sealants and paints.
To minimise risks of this type, JTA Safety has developed short practical briefing sessions designed for councils, principal contractors or others responsible for the management of construction works. The sessions cover:Where relevant, the briefings can be extended to cover other common construction OHS issues such as lead based paints, SMF, MDF, occupational and environmental noise, solvents, adhesives and paints.