FIFO suicides lead to call for code of practice in Northern Territory

Northern Territory unions have spoken out about the soaring number of suicides among FIFO workers employed on the Ichthys LNG project, calling for a FIFO code of practice to be implemented.

Northern Territory unions have spoken out about the soaring number of suicides among FIFO workers employed on the Ichthys LNG project, calling for a FIFO code of practice to be implemented.

In a radio interview with the ABC, Unions NT secretary and AMWU NT organiser Bryan Wilkins confirmed that seven employees at the Inpex-run Ichthys Project had taken their own lives.

One suicide occurred in the Manigurr-ma FIFO camp in July, while the other six occurred while the victims were on break.

Wilkins said it was the view of Unions NT that government should act on the recommendations of a report from the WA inquiry into the impact of FIFO work practices on mental health, and that this should become an election issue.

“We’ll be having the Territory election in August next year, so we’ll be out there campaigning and trying to get commitments from both sides of government,” he said.

“We’ve approached both ALP and the Country Liberal Party up here, and at this stage I haven’t had much of a response, they’re looking at it.

“But basically I’m meeting with as many politicians as a can to lobby this issue.”

Wilkins said Unions NT was collecting signatures to petition the NT parliament for a Territory code of practice for FIFO work employment, similar to that recommended in the WA FIFO inquiry report.

At the height of employment on the Ichthys Project, 8000 workers were rotating through the site, while 5000 FIFO workers have been working on the project since September, with a total staff cohort of 6500 at present.

Seven suicides among 8000 FIFO workers only would provide a standardised rate of more than 80 suicides per 100,000 workers, however INPEX has been approached to provide the total number of workers employed over the life of the project to date.

The standardised national average for suicide among the Australian male population in 2013 was 16.3 deaths per 100,000 men.

A statement from Inpex said the company was “committed to the wellbeing of the Ichthys Project workforce and will continue to look for ways to ensure a healthy and safe work environment”.

A University of Melbourne report showed that between 2001 and 2010, the adjusted rate for suicide among male machine operators and labourers was 18 per 100,000, while those employed in skilled trades had an adjusted rate of 13 per 100,000.

In August this year Australian Mines and Metals Association CEO Steve Knott said suicide rates among FIFO workers were potentially worse than official statistics indicated, as statistics could only pick up suicides that actually occurred in camps.

"Suicide rates at remote work sites don’t tell the full story, and the industry is working to better understand the true impact of FIFO arrangements to employee mental health," Knott told Australian Mining.

Research conducted at Edith Cowan University this year found that the incidence of depression among FIFO workers was 28.3 per cent, compared to the national average of 20 per cent.

The research also showed that men who had been employed as FIFO workers for five to nine years demonstrated the highest levels of depression and anxiety.

FIFO workers who had not left the industry after 10 years were found to have almost the same average levels of depression and anxiety as a FIFO worker in his first year.

Mates in Construction CEO Jorgen Gullestrup said there was no doubt that there were higher rates of suicide in the construction industry.

“It might not be actually 80 [suicides] in 100,000, but certainly 7 in a cohort of 8000 people is a significant area of concern,” he said.

“There’s actually no doubt, because that’s what we have found in Western Australia where there are high levels of work away from home.

Gullestrup said peer-based support programs were found one of the most effective means of suicide prevention among men.

“The issue we often have with men in particular is that men are not very good at asking for help,” he said.

“Putting out phone numbers to call the Employee Assistance Program is not that effective: It’s more effective for women than it is for men.

“Employee Assistance Programs are very good, don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent service to have, but if we want to reach men we need to be more proactive, and we need to use the men that are already there in the process.

“If you were to have a look at the recommendations from the parliamentary committee in Western Australia… one of the things they were very specific about was to say that FIFO worksites should consider having peer-based suicide prevention programs.”

According to Wilkins, the Inpex Ichthys project is entering the mechanical phase of construction, meaning employment on site will reach peak numbers again in 2016 with increased demand by contractor JKC Australia LNG for skilled trades such as mechanical fitters and boilermakers.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing trouble with depression or thoughts of self harm, please contact Mates in Construction on 1300642111, Lifeline on 131114, or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300659467

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