Australian politics is currently embroiled in a dispute generated by a contractor entering the telecommunications pits of the asset owner. Some, or many, of the pits contain asbestos and the contractor’s work, the laying of new fibre-optic cables, may disturb the asbestos. There are many other concerns but that is the nub.
The Australian newspaper has been running on this issue for many weeks but one article in today’s edition called “Taking a dig: will Bill come up short?” (page 9 – online paywall), by David Crowe, caught my attention. Crowe reports that:
“The Australian has been told Telstra chief executive David Thodey wrote to Shorten in December 2009 to argue against his proposal for a ‘‘proactive’’ program to remove asbestos from the company’s pits. Thodey gave three reasons for not proceeding: the cost; the risk of releasing asbestos; and the fact plans for the NBN were in train but had not been locked in.”
I realise that the OHS legislative concept of “reasonably practicable” does not extend to all facets of life but if it were applied to the current asbestos exposure (and I think it could) Thodey’s three reasons given above would be crucial in any potential prosecution, particularly if the reasons in Thodey’s response to Bill Shorten were listed in order of priority. In OHS law, cost is the last element to be considered in determining a reasonably practicable hazard control measure.
Shorten contacted Thodey outside of his portfolio duties at the time but Shorten has always been a strong voice for asbestos eradication, as his actions since becoming Workplace Relations Minister have shown. From media reports Shorten expects business leaders to be on the front foot on safety issues, to be “proactive”, primarily due to his concern for worker safety but also because it usually makes good economic sense, especially in the longterm.
The current controversy is occurring in a climate of election campaigning but is fundamentally about the management by an asset owner of the workplace hazards being presented to a contractor. There are many questions both of OHS and contract management in this issue but a core question is should the hazard have been controlled or removed once the asset owner became aware that a contractor would be accessing and changing the asset? Would this action have been reasonably practicable?