Opening the veil on FIFO mental health

This month the West Australian parliament unanimously backed an inquiry into the link between FIFO mining rosters and suicide, a move which begins in early September.

The initiative has been met with relief from many in the FIFO community, who believe that it is time for an investigation of the impact working FIFO rosters can have on mental health.

The Education and Health Parliamentary Standing Committees will examine the problem with focus on "systemic issues", such as the contributing factors leading to mental illness and suicide in FIFO workers, current legislation and policy for workplace mental health in WA, and improvements to current government initiatives.

It has been widely reported that in the past 12 months there have been nine suicides among workers in the Pilbara alone.

Committee chairman and MP Dr Graham Jacobs said the inquiry would not be easy, but that it was important to attend to immediately.

"It's important we look at the current initiatives employed by Government and by industry… what responsibility employees have and what responsibility employers have," he said.

Dr Jacobs said the new inquiry, comprised of five members (three Liberal Party, two Labor) will look at a number of issues such as the services that are available for FIFO workers, availability of mental health and first aid facilities, counselling and advice, as well as other services on site.

With a view to maintaining focus on the issues, Dr Jacobs hopes the inquiry will have a preliminary report before parliament before Christmas adjournment, followed by a final report on the first Thursday of the year.

"In the original motion there was the issue of urgency, so we didn't want to make an inquiry that would last 12 months, people sometimes start an inquiry and it disappears into the ether for 12 months," he said.

"We didn't want that to happen, we want to keep it rolling, we've got a fair bit of work to do."

The interest in FIFO-related suicide prevention has been warming up throughout 2014, with Rio Tinto's iron ore chief executive Andrew Harding accepting an invitation to join the Mini­sterial Council for Suicide Prevention in July.

Harding has said the mining industry is still at the beginning of addressing mental health issues.

"Twenty years ago we were learning about physical safety. Mental health-type stuff has been quite a bit more recent," he said.

"We're not at the very beginning of the journey, we're at the beginning of how we work with these sort of issues."

Early last month a worker was found dead at Barrow Island, and in July a worker was found dead in his room at the Gateway Village in South Hedland.

However, the number of FIFO related deaths is undoubtedly higher, as a number of workers have committed suicide while on break over the past year.

One worker from the Tropicana mine committed suicide while on break last June, after it was alleged the man had been involved in a drunken fight with a fellow worker, who was found dead in camp after the incident. The matter is currently subject to a coronial investigation.

Camp life can be extremely depressing, even without a pre-existing mental illness

The family of mining supervisor Steven Migas, who committed suicide in November while working for FMG in Port Hedland, have thrown their support behind the new inquiry.

Migas' brother John said the news of the death came as a complete shock as he had talked to Steven only four days before the death, that he was excited about Christmas, and that he had no history of mental illness.

Migas had been working on a 3/1 week roster, although many workers around the country in construction roles work on the longer 4/1 roster, which workers and unions blame for exacerbating dysfunctional home and family life.

Recently efforts to make a change from 4/1 week rosters to the more 'family friendly' 3/1 rosters were voted out by a majority of workers on the Curtis Island LNG projects in favour of higher pay rates and increased daily financial benefits.

Union members at the Cape Lambert facility in the Pilbara are preparing to take protected action in the coming weeks, in order to renegotiate the site EBA with contractor Laing O'Rourke in favour of a 3/1 roster.

WA mental health commissioner Tim Marney has said it is not surprising that there has been an increase in suicides by FIFO workers, as there are proven suicide risk factors prevalent in the FIFO lifestyle.

"The majority of suicides happen in the 15- to 44-year-old age bracket and the average age of FIFO workers is 38," he said.

"Four out of five suicides are male and 80 per cent of FIFO workers are male.

"Social isolation, family or financial stress, and high risk-taking behaviour, those are three proven risk factors predominant in an age and gender cohort already pre-disposed to suicide.

"Add to that shift work, which has been clinically proven to mess with mental health."

Marney said mental health services in WA are underfunded, under resourced and underdeveloped.

"We probably only have 30 per cent of supply we need in those services." 

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