Weighing up obesity

 For workers in the mining industry some of the most dangerous health and safety risks aren’t located on site.

With the rate of obesity and chronic disease in mining rising at an alarming rate, companies are increasingly looking at ways to keep workers healthy.

The risks posed by unhealthy lifestyles can be deadly, and while many people are aware of the problem they lack the means or knowledge to make the right changes.

Workers are also blaming mining companies, with their demands for long shifts and irregular hours, for imposing unhealthy lifestyles.

Kate Fleming, a dietitian who has worked with mining companies in the Pilbara, told Australian Mining men were particularly at risk from obesity.

“We see it in both men and women, but it’s with men that it’s particularly a problem,” she said.

“Some of the statistics I’ve seen recently are particularly alarming, with around 60 to 69 per cent overweight.”

Fleming said while there are a wide range of problems brought on by weight and obesity, the risk of chronic disease was the most significant danger.

She listed cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis as some of the worst problems.

High blood pressure and poor mobility, and a long list of other side effects are also likely to develop.


Obesity and weight has long been the target of private and government advertising, and is an issue reasonably well known in the public.

But Fleming said while people were aware of the problem many did not take a practical approach to its solution.

“There is a very strong awareness in the public, and most people have some interest in the area,” she said.

“The problem is that they struggle to put that interest into practice.”

Fleming said it was “very common” to see the average person attempting a diet or exercise regime, but the practice was usually approached the wrong way and doomed to fail.

She said while the awareness was there, an understanding of the seriousness of the condition was also often lacking.

“The other problem is that a lot of people don’t see themselves as overweight or obese,” she said.

But Fleming said attempting to pinpoint the direct cause and solution to the problem, especially for mining workers, was a “hard question”.

She said while each person had to be assessed individually, it was usually eating habits rather than exercise that played the most significant role in a healthy lifestyle.

“Both contribute, and there’s no doubt inactivity affects our motivation, energy, sleeping habits, and mood,” she said.

“Poor eating probably has the stronger relationship to weight, while exercise forms part of the bigger picture in terms of wellness.”

 Take control

While rife in the industry, obesity is not a problem exclusive to mining.

Nevertheless mining makes harsher demands on workers than most industries, making it easier for workers to fall into unhealthy routines.

“Some of the challenges with workers include very long shifts that leave people exhausted and with little interest or energy to be active,” Fleming said.

The fly-in fly-out lifestyle also poses challenges.

At FIFO camps workers have chefs cooking for them as well as easy access to cheap alcohol.

“Other stresses related to the lifestyle, including relationship issues and being away from home can also contribute,” Fleming said.

But despite the protests of some, responsibility for the problem can’t be attributed to any one cause, and Fleming stressed that workers needed to take control of their lifestyles.

“Health is very much a responsibility for the individual,” she said.

“So education takes an important role in helping people make smart decisions.

“Some responsibility still lies with the employer with things like accessibility to exercises, education, and time off.”

In her work with miners Fleming said she had worked with companies on catering and providing meals for workers.

She said she had also worked on education for both workers and employers.

Fleming said both parties had taken to the advice, and she had received particularly good feedback from one-on-one sessions with workers.

“These sessions are voluntary, not forced, and I’m always surprised at the interest,” she said.

“We frequently have people tell us that it’s much easier than they thought it would be.”

Because each case is unique, and each worker faces different lifestyle challenges, Fleming was cautious about giving general advice to workers with a weight problem.

But she said a lot of her one-on-one work involved determining the appropriate meal size for each person.

She said eating regularly, avoiding alcohol, and trying to find an opportunity to be active were all good places to start.

Offsite workers should look for low fat and low salt meals, and without a family to give support, single men needed to make a bigger effort in preparing their own food.

“Most companies are taking a significant interest in the health of their workers and I’d be surprised if there were sites out there not offering health and wellness packages to their workers,” Fleming said.