Equal time rosters could fight FIFO suicide

The chairman of a WA parliamentary inquiry into the effects of FIFO on mental health has said that “equal time” could be the optimum FIFO roster compression for mining workers.

In the wake of the release of the WA Education and Health Standing Committee interim report ‘Shining a Light on FIFO Mental Health: A Discussion Paper’, Dr Graham Jacobs MLA spoke with Australian Mining to discuss some of the findings of the parliamentary inquiry.

“We’re still trying to ask [the submitters] what is the ideal roster, and they silly-sally around it, but one of the things that’s coming to us is that whatever time you spend at work, so if you spend two weeks at work, maybe you should be spending two weeks at home,” he said.

The new report has expressed the difficulty with corroborating suicide statistics in the FIFO industry, and the need for better standards of reporting for such incidents.

Dr Jacobs said of the nine allegedly FIFO-related suicides that occurred over a 12 month period in WA, the inquiry was only able to gather data about five victims.

A spokesperson said that although the Committee was unable to corroborate this statistic, it received considerable evidence of the many factors of FIFO work that are thought to impact on mental health.

Risk Factors

Suicide risk factors for FIFO workers included isolation from family and friendship support networks, high compression FIFO rosters, stress and fatigue, and the statistical rate of mental illness and suicidal tendencies among the predominant gender-age range of employees in the mining industry (men aged between 25-44).

“The guts of it for me at the present time is that there are 67,000 workers in FIFO resource industry in Western Australia which constitutes 60 per cent of the total employment in the resource industry – Six years ago it was 40 per cent,” Jacobs said.

“The other interesting thing is that the cohort of 20-44 years old males constitutes 67 per cent of the total employment, and they are the same people with the highest instance of mental illness in the community, particularly depression, the most prone cohort.

Dr Jacobs said this meant that companies had a responsibility to provide a better level of counselling support than a phone based Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

“Companies have a lot of lifestyle and recreation officers or co-ordinators, but we think you need more than that.

“Fitness is important and diet is important, but emotional health and well-being is also important, so we think that’s where we will go with that.”

Dr Jacobs said the committee will go on site visits in early February to visit a variety of mining operation and accommodation facilities.

 “We are still trying to work through who has support on site,” he said.

“We believe telephone and online support is not actually fine, so we are looking at sites that can supply a template for providing a counsellor or some sort of psycho-social support on site, whether that be a chaplain/counsellor or some other kind.

Cultural issues

The committee also found that employees feared getting a “window seat” (loss of employment) if they were found out by an employer to have sought treatment for mental illness, to the point of abstaining from anti-depressant medication in order to pass pre-employment drug screening.

“The cultural issues were best exemplified by [suicide victim] Reece Connor’s dad,” Jacobs said.

“We were all in tears really, Peter told us his son was on site and they had an hour conversation over the phone in which Peter encouraged Reece to go and tell the management that he was suffering from depression and wasn’t coping too well.”

Dr Jacobs said the committee heard evidence that Connor’s father offered to go to the management for him, to which he begged his father not to act.

Jacobs said three weeks after that phone conversation Connor was dead.

“Is that about the stigma and the culture? Is that about the personal perception of the stigma [of mental illness in the workplace] or is the stigma really there and is there anything the mining companies can do about it?” Jacobs said.

Reporting of Suicides in terms of FIFO

The committee commented that the only reports of suspected suicides in the Department of Mines and Petroleum records were made in the period when the inquiry was reported in the media.

“Clearly, the publicity surrounding this inquiry has prompted mine site managers to begin reporting suspected suicides in accommodation facilities,” Jacobs said in the final committee comment.

The report identified that suicides that took place in FIFO camps were under-reported in terms of the connection to FIFO work.

“The committee’s view is that any death connected to a mining operation… must be reported to the regulator,” Jacobs said.

“An investigation of the circumstances surrounding the suspected suicide is the only mean through which causal workplace factors can be identified, including bullying, fatigue and the adequacy of psychosocial supports provided at the accommodation facilities.’

Jacobs said that not all workers who commit suicide as a result of FIFO-related distress do so on site, and that if the suicide were to occur at home then the role of their employment would not be a feature of the investigation.

New submissions

The committee are expecting more people to come forward to make submissions after the release of today’s discussion paper, and will continue inquiry hearings through March 2015, followed by a final report on findings and recommendations to government and industry.