To fly or not to fly?

On July 25 in 2013 a young FIFO worker named Rhys Connor took his own life in his room at the Hope Downs camp in Western Australia.

In his final days Connor gave an interview on camera in which he revealed his struggle with depression, and belief that his life as a FIFO worker was having a negative impact on his mental health.

Connor urged people who aspired to the FIFO lifestyle to reconsider their decision.

“There are people out there what seem to be fine, and deep down they’re not,” he said.

“People have got to realise that everyone’s not OK.”

Connor blamed FIFO for his decision in a letter found in his room: “People don’t know what it’s like to work FIFO and have depression and I’ve decided to end my life.”

Six weeks earlier Connor had separated from his partner, the mother of his only child.

A year later a coronial inquest into four mining industry suicides would spark media reports that claimed nine FIFO workers had committed suicide in the past year.

On August 9 2014 Perthnow was the first publication to state that nine FIFO workers had suicided, based on research from local newspapers and online, and the statistic was quickly taken up in Australian news cycle.

This figure and the attention it gained formed part of the basis for the Standing Committee on Education and Health to launch an inquiry into the impact of FIFO work practices on mental health, chaired by Dr Graham Jacobs.

am_august15_FIFO-2.jpgThe final report was tabled in June, but despite its many findings the committee claimed it was unable trace the details of the nine FIFO suicides in WA, largely due to inadequate reporting of details to the coroner’s office when suicides had occurred.

This has led to some of the most important recommendations of the inquiry: That the Attorney General provide funding to the Coroner’s Court of WA to develop and implement a searchable database for recording and monitoring trends in reportable deaths in WA.

If implemented the measure will not only serve to keep accurate records of when and how FIFO workers have died of unnatural causes, but will also benefit other industries which require monitoring, including the disturbing trend of suicides among paramedics.

However out of the 30 recommendations in the report, perhaps the most important one calls for a new industry code of practice for FIFO work arrangements.

Inquiry chairman Dr Graham Jacobs MLA said the high risk demographic and higher incidence of mental distress among the FIFO group led to the decision to recommend development of a code of practice, one which can provide guidance on best practice for sites and remote camps, and promote improved mental and emotional health in workforces.

“The current legislation lacks a clearly defined responsibility for workers’ health and safety once they are off-shift and residing in the accommodation facility,” Jacobs said.

“We could have been tougher, we could have said we want this mandated in regulation, but we said hang on, we know the industry has done well in the physical modality, lost time injuries and deaths on mines have plummeted over the last 10 years.

am_august15_FIFO-3.jpg“We believe, with a will, the industry has the wherewithal to do this in the mental health realm, because they’ve done it in the physical realm, and there’s a code of practice for almost everything in the industry; they’ve even got a code of practice for legionnaires’ disease, so why not establish a code of practice when it comes to rosters and fatigue management?”

According to Jacobs, BHP had already started on delineating a code of practice with a fatigue management profile dictating that for every period of time worked, workers should have half of that time off.

“We believe 4/1 is a high compression roster, which you see in the construction industry, and we believe that we need to reduce from 4/1 towards the ideal that has been prescribed by some of the big miners, that we should move to a 2/1,” Jacobs said.

“There should be recognition of a code of practice, and 4/1 does seem to be construction due to timelines, and the projects only go for a defined time, but construction workers often have to move from one construction site to another.”

Of the 42 findings and 30 recommendations to come from the inquiry report, the call for more research into aspects of the mental health of FIFO workers is already in process.

Mining lobby groups such as the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy and Australian Mines and Metals Association, although slow to support many of the findings of the inquiry, have still managed to voice their support for conducting more research into the mental health of FIFO workers to aid engagement between miners and stakeholders.

However, responses from industry lobby groups are guarded, as was WACME chief executive Reg Howard-Smith’s response to the inquiry report made on 18 June: “Industry would urge the Government when considering its response to recommendations to focus on quality research and data, rather than on anecdotal and emotive evidence.”

The WACME says it is currently examining the findings of the inquiry report in detail, using a committee process incorporating their Mental Health Working Group and FIFO Reference Group and Workplace Health and Safety Committee to consider the recommendations.

A report stating the final position of the WACME on the inquiry is expected to be released around the end of August.

“The resources sector puts the safety and health of employees first and foremost and supports the use of robust and peer-reviewed research to inform continuous improvement efforts and ensure evidence based policy decisions prevail.  The report and recommendations will be examined in that context,” a spokesperson for the lobby group said.

“Safety and health legislation relevant to workplaces in Western Australia currently covers both physical and psychological aspects of employee wellbeing under general and specific duties placed on employers and employees.

“As noted by the Committee there are already many codes of practice and guidelines in place to assist companies manage risks to health and safety across the resources sector including; Working Hours Code of Practice; Prevention and Management of Violence, Aggression and Bullying Code of Practice, Safe Design of Buildings and Structures Code of Practice; and General Duty of Care guidelines for both mines and petroleum.”

In terms of peer-reviewed research, the Education and Health Standing Committee inquiry’s final report referred to three studies, however two studies are yet to release their final reports.

A report from Lifeline which surveyed 924 FIFO workers demonstrated that there was a high level of psychological distress among workers, and that 30 per cent of the sample evidenced a likelihood of having a psychological disorder.

am_august15_FIFO-1.JPGEarlier this year Edith Cowan University researcher Philippa Vojnovic released some of the results from a study of more than 600 FIFO workers in Western Australia, a study which showed there is a trend of depression, anxiety and stress among FIFO workers much higher than in the general population.

The results showed that compared with the average rate of incidence of depression, anxiety and stress in the general population (around 13 per cent), the results for FIFO workers were alarming at best.

FIFO workers were demonstrated to be more stressed, with 19.4 per cent of workers reporting symptoms.

The rate of anxiety among the FIFO sample was higher at 22.3 per cent, and for depression the incidence rate soared to 28.3 per cent.

The full results of Vojnovic’s report will be released in October, including an analysis of the effects of the length of time workers have length of time workers have been involved in FIFO.

Further reports will follow examining roster compression, work-place culture, sources of support and the stigma of mental health problems in the industry.

While these results won’t be revealed in full until late 2015 and 2016, Vojnovic was able to discuss some of the more interesting findings with Australian Mining.

The study found that the duration of time spent working FIFO had a marked impact on the extent to which one was likely to suffer some kind of mental effect.

Workers in their first year of FIFO work exhibited very little in the way of mental problems, with a mean score of 8 across the board.

Predictably, the numbers were higher, a mean score of 9.6, for workers who had been working FIFO for a period between 12 months and four years.

From five years to nine years the incidence of depression, stress and anxiety was much higher than any other duration studied, bringing in a score of 10.2.

However, for workers who had been employed in a FIFO capacity for 10 years or longer, the rate of mental issues dropped right back to similar levels as those in their first year of work, at 8.3.

Vojnovic suggested that the reason for this may be that the workers who had suffered mental illness that was related to their levels of isolation and stress in a FIFO capacity would have somehow exited the industry within a ten year window.

Such attrition could be caused by personal choice, by being forced to leave, workforce turnover, or even in the most extreme and rare cases by suicide.

However, more studies with a longitudinal focus would be required to test such theories.

Those who are left after ten years are clearly people who genuinely love working FIFO, for one reason or another.

Vojnovic also suggested that the remaining FIFO ‘lifers’ (about a fifth of the sample who were working FIFO ten years or longer) had much better support systems at home and in camp than other workers, with most of them found to have worked in the same job for a long period of time, and had not jumped around from site to site throughout their careers.

In addition, employees with a university degree were half as likely to experience stress or depression than those who didn’t finish high school, even in cases where the employee was working in a manual role unrelated to their field of study.

Although the full studies from ECU are yet to be published, there are already clear indicators that there are some people who are better suited to high compression rosters than others.

Many FIFO workers, often long-term industry veterans, publically object to the notion that there should be any change to the system to suit those at risk of experiencing mental health problems.

However there is a large body of FIFO workers who do believe that something needs to change, to relieve some of the pressure from FIFO workers who would find it easier to cope if some of the pressure of isolation and long periods away from home was lessened.

The FIFO mental health report suggested it would be extremely difficult for employers to screen for those who are psychologically suited to FIFO work.

A comparison was made with people who work at heights, in that companies do not hire people who have good balance and trust them not to fall, but rather utilise safety systems to work towards zero harm in terms of workplace injuries and deaths.

The real question for the industry will be to consider whether the number of people who are better suited to FIFO work in Australia will be sufficient to cover the needs of the mining sector.

We have already witnessed the slowdown of the construction phase in mining, which is indeed the source of Australia’s high compression rosters, so without such high demand for labour, will the dwindling number of old-school FIFO hardliners be suitable to carry the needs of remote construction operations?

If Australia does not have sufficient numbers of citizen workers who are all but impervious to the psychological rigours of FIFO (and it would seem that research will show that we cannot be sure of this suitability until after 10 years of FIFO service), then measures such as a FIFO code of practice in WA will better serve the requirements of the workforce members who are more susceptible to adverse psychological change.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.