Prior to the 2013 election, the Australian media, particular the News Limited newspapers, went to town on the previous (Labor) government over its handling of the National Broadband Network (NBN) strategy. The media sniffed a political vulnerability as it had in the Home Insulation Program and other economic stimulus packages, such as the Building the Education Revolution, even though the economic program is seen by some as a very successful strategy.
The NBN has several OHS contexts but asbestos is the most prominent. NBN needed to install its fibre-optic cables through the established and old infrastructure of a major competitor and partially government-owned telecommunication company, Telstra. Many of Telstra’s old pits were constructed using asbestos.
On 5 November 2013 The Australian newspaper published its latest article on NBN and asbestos but the content of its own article shows how much hyperbole the newspaper has employed in this long campaign and that NBN Co seems to be managing its asbestos safety well.
Essentially The Australian lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the risk register of the NBN and for details on “… the impact that asbestos contamination could have on construction of the mammoth project.” The request was refused but certain details of the rejection mentioned by The Australian questions much of that newspaper’s reporting on this issue. For instance:
- When the hazard of asbestos was identified, NBN reviewed its rollout program and put in new hazard and contractor management controls. The relevant OHS regulator, Comcare, is satisfied with these measures.
- “…a Comcare spokesperson said the vast majority of the 66 complaints it had received this year were between May and July. No evidence had been uncovered of exposures to workers or the community in the investigations. By October 30, one incident was still under investigation, but there was no “immediate risk” of exposure.” (emphasis added)
- “Of the 40 incidents that were investigated under the Work Health and Safety Act, ….. some investigations found minor breaches related to trip and fall hazards, traffic management and safe systems of work procedures” – pretty normal for a construction project.
- “Some investigations were launched into poor asbestos removal practices and allegations of illegal dumping, but no allegations could be substantiated”
Risk registers are common construction documents and are intended to identify the risks prior to the commencement of works and the measures employed to reduce risks to an acceptable or manageable level. They are reviewed regularly, usually monthly, so that new risks are assessed and, depending on the construction period and methodology, removed. The registers often include project risks, financial risks and contractor management risks as well as safety issues. NBN Co is as committed to risk management as most major construction projects in Australia.
As would be expected, the unearthing of a substantial or widespread hazard caused the construction program to be revised. In this instance occupational hygienists were brought in to assess the risks and the claims. The quote above shows no evidence of exposure to workers or the community and there was no immediate risk of exposure.
The rejected request is unlikely to deter some sections of the media from creating a story from very little. The media will continue fishing for an angle just as occurred in this instance. SafetyAtWorkBlog has viewed the FOI rejection which confirms this fishing expedition. Originally, in June 2013, The Australian requested “the latest version of the NBN Co’s risk register”. Over weeks and months the FOI request was whittled down to a risk register of a specific time frame and related only to asbestos risks. The NBN Co determined that most of the risk register is commercially sensitive and could reveal risk management issues pertaining to contractors and others which the FOI laws do not cover.
After many months of discussions and the outlay of only a few hundred dollars, The Australian salvaged what it could from a 12-page FOI rejection. What the rejection means is that NBN Co seems to have had its risk management strategy in place and fully operational. There may have been contractor management issues over asbestos in communications pits and the ownership of those pits and access to the pits may have been unclear but NBN Co seems to have handled the issue well and with minimal or no safety and health impacts on workers or the public.
What seems to have occurred is that the media expected a quicker fix to an issue than is generally possible from a national construction project. It produced articles based on whatever information it could obtain at the time to its commercial timeline. When corporate risk management and investigation processes are undertaken, the truth or the closest equivalent is revealed. The 5 November 2013 article in The Australian does not reveal a corporation dysfunctional on the management of asbestos risks. It shows a company with a functioning OHS and risk management system.