The fly-in fly-out lifestyle isn’t an easy one to manage, and although many miners on FIFO rotations are paid generously, there are sometimes issues that come with this form of work that money can’t fix.
Workers who spend extended periods away from family and friends can miss out on key milestones and events, ramping up relationship pressures and feelings of isolation, stress, and poor health.
Recognising this, suicide prevention group, the R U OK? Foundation has launched a campaign specifically aimed at the male dominated FIFO workforce.
Speaking to Australian Mining R U OK? Spokesperson Rebecca Lewis said the suicide prevention campaign, launched ahead of R U OK? Day on September 12, has been formulated to get more men in FIFO jobs talking about what’s troubling them.
She explained that “men are often reluctant to talk about their feelings and [are] unlikely to encourage others to open up”.
Lewis said that it’s important to educate workers about the importance of looking out for each other, especially when operating in remote locations.
“We want to inspire a national movement of people who are ready to have a conversation with anyone struggling with life, and it's therefore essential that we target people working in these [mining] settings,” Lewis said.
R U OK? Afield is a new campaign that aims to inspire FIFO and DIDO staff in the mining industry to start a conversation about mental health in the workplace.
Headed up by Rugby League legend Wendell Sailor, R U OK? Afield incorporates humour and a direct style to remind miners “that being a mate means talking about issues before they become a crisis,” Lewis said.
The campaign has already received support from the likes of mining powerhouse BHP Billiton and accommodation company The MAC Services Group, encouraging employees working away from home to ask ‘are you ok?’ regularly and meaningfully of workmates.
R U OK? Foundation chief executive Janina Nearn said suicide is a significant issue in regional Australia and this campaign is part of the Foundation’s strategy to boost protective factors in these communities.
“The recent Senate report into FIFO Australia revealed that there is a growing level of concern about the impact these working arrangements are having on people,” Nearn said.
“Many of these Australians are living in temporary accommodation away for periods of time from their usual social networks and families.
“It is therefore critical that these workplaces become supportive communities and individuals take a proactive interest in the wellbeing of workmates.”
Sailor said R U OK? Afield is designed to motivate men to go a little deeper if they think a mate at work is struggling with life.
“When work takes you away from home for long periods, workmates become family,” he said.
“As men, we need to step up and regularly ask ‘are you ok?’ because it’s not always obvious when someone’s struggling. Everyone can ask someone to help make a difference.”
In the small Hunter Valley township of Broke, at about 4.30am a group of about six mining stalwarts are making an effort to combat the ill effects mining has had on the region’s tired employees.
Setting up beside the local church, which the men and one lady are quick to point out that they are not affiliated with, saying this is neutral ground, they’re stoking up a 44 gallon drum fire to ward off the frost and cooking up bacon and eggs.
As the clock ticks over past 6.30am utes start appearing along Broke Road, night shift has ended and the weary eyed men and women are heading home.
For some home is about 3 hours away, a long drive to begin with, but add to that a 12 hour shift through the wee hours and it is a recipe for disaster.
The local volunteers launched the R U OK? Breakfast about six months ago, with no funding or connection with any mines, recognising fatigue and depression was ripping holes through their tight knit community.
A local father and son were killed as a result of a fatigue accident, the divorce rate is up and so are long neck sales at the local store, one volunteer explained.
“You can see the fatigue on the guy’s faces,” a volunteer said.
The volunteers said the initiative has evolved, starting off slowly to now average between 30 and 50 mine workers stopping for a free breakfast and a chat.
“There’s a sense when you arrive this will give the guys enough charge to get home safely,” one local Broke resident explained.
Broke is surrounded by four different mines, including Bulga and Blakefield and the road side breaky is attracting a broad range of people from the sector, including mine managers and operators.
Under a blue gazebo, the volunteers cook up breakfast once a week, alternating Monday and Friday so miners on different rotations have the opportunity to have a break and get home safely.
“The more they use this facility, the more we’ll do it,” one volunteer said.
John Hannemann, a local mineworker and volunteer at the breakfasts explained the ramifications of prolonged night shifts, saying for many it plays havoc on the body and mind.
“It’s horrific what those shifts can do,” he said.
“The money is good.
“But the amount of divorces, it’s sad.”
Hannemann said the downturn in the local coal sector has sent stress levels spiking.
“The downturn is causing pressure,” he said.
“The older guys see it coming but for those who don’t have the experience [of the downturn] it’s a rude shock.”
A spokesperson from mental health organisation R U OK? told Australian Mining that local initiatives like this are invaluable and encourage workmates to look out for each other.
“We’ll never know if we’ve helped anyone, it’s not something you can measure,” Mark Jolly a volunteer and founder of the initiative told Australian Mining.
“But I’m confident if we’ve helped someone get home safely we’ve done our jobs.”
With 24/7 operations, heavy machinery, demanding rosters, intensive commutes, and disruptive sleep environments fatigue is a serious risk in mining.
Chief executive of fatigue management firm TMS Consulting, Helen Wood explained that Australia’s mining sector is one of the safest in the world, and while it may seem insignificant, the fact that fatigue has actually been acknowledged as a real and present safety issue is a big step towards greater safety compliance in the industry.
R U OK? Afield resources include a manager's flyer to help promote the value of conversations during tool-box talks, as well as posters and postcards for both managers and staff.
All the resources can be downloaded from R U OK? Afield