ABC News has reported this week that NBN Co is apologising to a Perth family for one of its contractors removing asbestos from a communications pit without giving the family proper warning or information about what was to happen.


What happened?

According to the ABC, the male resident was approached by a site worker on behalf of the NBN in the morning and asked if he would be at home during the day.

Later during the day, the resident observed the site worker setting up danger tape and barriers across his driveway, before extracting asbestos from a communications pit before sealing it in bags to be removed.

The resident was concerned that he hadn’t been properly notified, and that the works were being done around school drop off time, with a primary school nearby.

This isn’t a rehashing of the news – the ABC and other sites have reported on this – but more offering a thought on what actually happened.

Why’s it a problem?

The crux of the issue appears to be that NBN Co has a policy which requires contractors to give 48 hours notice to affected residents where asbestos removal will take place. It appears that the contractor failed to do so. End of story.

From what I’ve read, there’s nothing in this to suggest that any of the following are true:

  • the asbestos containing material (ACM) was removed unsafely;
  • the resident was at any risk;
  • school children, their parents, or anyone else in the area was at risk;
  • the CM was improperly handled, bagged or disposed of; or
  • anyone was at any real danger.

From what I can see from the photos taken by the resident – and supplied to the ABC – the operation appears to have been done entirely within appropriate safety guidelines.

Was this a dangerous situation?

Almost certainly it wasn’t.

The fact is, asbestos contained in things like communication pits is fairly safe. ACM that is not friable (i.e. in material that you can easily pulverise with your fingers) is relatively safe to handle, provided appropriate precautions are followed.

In this case, those precautions appear to have been followed – the worker has a tyvek suit on, is wearing gloves, has a face mask on, and has erected barriers around his immediate work area.

Even breaking up the ACM into smaller pieces, while not 100% safe, isn’t a significant risk provided it is done sensibly. If the ACM is kept wet (and not just damp), covered, and broken up, the operation is fairly safe.

The risk posed to the resident, his children, or indeed anyone else in the area is so minimal as to be almost non existent, as the ACM would be – you would assume, from the information available – handled in such a way as to prevent asbestos fibres from becoming airborne.

But, you might say, how can you say this Chris? What do you know about it? Well, I am qualified in the identification, assessment and removal of ACM, including the appropriate safety precautions to ensure that I – and anyone else around – is not placed at risk by those activities.

This is the same qualification and training that NBN Co’s contractors would (presumably) have, though I suspect their training requirements exceed the base level qualification.

What’s it mean?

While it appears to be a policy issue – as the contractor didn’t follow it – the safety issues here are not the story.

It’s human nature to be afraid of things we don’t understand, and the reality is few people know anything much about asbestos, except that “it’s dangerous”.

While that is true – breathe in enough asbestos fibres and you’re almost certain to suffer from serious health issues – when handled safely, asbestos isn’t especially dangerous.

People today live in houses made out of asbestos containing materials quite safely, because it is maintained, painted and left intact, meaning none of the dangerous stuff becomes airborne.

The removal of asbestos containing communication pits need not be dangerous to anyone (including the workers involved) provided that proper safety precautions are followed.

There’s no suggestion they weren’t here – in fact, the available information suggests they were.

Could this all have been avoided? Of course. That’s why NBN Co has its asbestos management policy which – amongst other things – should educate nearby residents about what’s being done and how – if done properly – it poses no risk to their health or safety whatsoever.

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    Scott Plowman

    didn’t realise you had that qualification chris. Jack of all trades aren’t you. Next you’ll be saying you’re a 3 hat restaurant qualified chef?