Fly-in, fly-out - the mental and physical effects of mining work schedules

Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work schedules dominate the Australian mining industry but can exact a heavy toll on relationships and families. We get an update on the parliamentary inquiry into the mental health impacts of FIFO and changes to the workforce demographic in Western Australia.


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Speaking at the launch of the 2015-2025 Western Australian Resources Sector Outlook in November 2014, Reg Howard-Smith, CEO of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CME), offered an insight into key changes in the state's mining workforce demographic in the next decade.

"The 2025 workforce is expected to be approximately 87,000, while lower than the current number, it is still forecast to be double the pre-expansion levels of 2004," he stated at the function in Perth.

In real terms, that equates to a precipitous 20% drop in the workforce in the state as the industry transition from construction to operations, combined with falling commodity prices, continues.

Equally compelling was the CME's prediction that the number of personnel working intense fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) schedules is set to increase. The announcement came less than three months after a parliamentary inquiry was launched into the mental health impacts of FIFO work arrangements.

"By 2020 it is expected the proportion of FIFO in the workforce will be approximately 63%, up from about 60% in 2014."

"The popularity of fly-in, fly-out continues to grow," said Howard-Smith. "By 2020 it is expected the proportion of FIFO in the workforce will be approximately 63%, up from about 60% in 2014."

Pressure groups: assessing the impact of FIFO on mental health

A FIFO worker on an 'eight and six' roster may work twelve or 13-hour shifts for eight consecutive days before flying home for six days. Another typical roster is 2:1 - two weeks on site, then one week off - and it is not uncommon for employees to work for two or three weeks before having a week's rest.

The impact of these types of work rotas on physical and mental health has long been the subject of heated debate. Testifying at a federal FIFO inquiry in 2012, David Mountain of the Australian Medical Association revealed that increased stress levels, mental illness, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, and obesity were common medical concerns among doctors who serviced FIFO workers.

His statements were given added credence by Michele Grow, chief executive of employee assistance specialist Davidson Trahaire Corpsych. Writing on website Mining Australia in 2013, she drew attention to the heavy toll exacted on FIFO mining workers and their families by a combination of extended working days, long work patterns and rosters, harsh climate conditions and regular air travel.

"While the industry has been proactive in minimising employees' physical risks, the widely acknowledged psychological risks have not yet been adequately addressed," she said.

"One of the most significant and concerning issues is the increased prevalence of mental health issues across the industry. The predominantly male population and the level of fatigue, isolation, anxiety and stress involved in FIFO work significantly increase the risk of mental health issues."

"Over the past two years there has been a marked increased in the instances of suicide, attempted suicide and self harm," she continued. "The stigma related to mental health issues often inhibits employees seeking help, and the lack of awareness and confidence of managers means the issues are often left unattended."



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The issue made headlines once again in August 2014 when reports surfaced of nine FIFO-related suicides in the Pilbara region alone in the previous twelve months, prompting the Western Australian Parliament to commission a five-strong Education and Standing Committee to investigate mental illness among FIFO workers, and wider policy and legislation governing workplace mental health.

The CME rejects claims that FIFO workers are more at risk, claiming there is no evidence that mental health issues are any higher in the FIFO population than in the wider workforce in Western Australia.

"To date, the parliamentary inquiry has yet to find evidence or substantiate claims that the FIFO workforce had a higher prevalence of mental health issues," stated Howard-Smith.

"Some in the community continue to stigmatise FIFO employees and perpetuate myths associated with FIFO, despite a growing bank of research which highlights FIFO employees share the same health and lifestyle outlook as other Western Australians."

FIFO vs residential: skill retention, recruitment and rural regeneration

For mining operators, a FIFO workforce is an economic no-brainer. Limited skilled labour, high rural property prices and a lack of residential infrastructure in remote regions such as Pilbara mean that flying workers back and forth is cheaper than permanently relocating employees and their families.

''On average it costs Fortescue $100,000 more to employ a person who lives in the Pilbara than to employ a person FIFO,'' Deirdre Willmott, external relations manager at Fortescue Metals Group, told the aforementioned federal inquiry in 2012, adding that the company would save $33m each year if it switched its 330 residential workers in the town of Port Hedland to FIFO workers.

The CME argues that FIFO conditions are improving, pointing to the variety of FIFO rosters on offer, improved worker facilitates such as in-room internet to communicate with partners and family, and support groups and employee assistance initiatives that help mining staff adjust to the FIFO lifestyle.

"The majority of resources companies also provide counselling services and promote awareness of wellbeing issues via their fit for work and health promotion programmes," said Howard-Smith.

Despite the CME's prediction that the number of FIFO workers will rise, there is evidence that mining operators are willing to regenerate rural residential areas in order to recruit and retain skilled staff.

Rio Tinto has spent $300m expanding accommodation in the Pilbara town of Wickham as part of its plan to expand iron ore production by more than 50% by 2015. The giant multinational has stated that it is also the responsibility of the state government to spend some of the increased tax and royalties from the mining boom to improve conditions for FIFO workers in remote settlements.

According to the 2015-2025 Western Australian Resources Sector Outlook, a collaborative research project involving the CME and Deloitte Access Economics, the proportion of residential employees will increase to 25% of the overall workforce in Western Australia, compared with just 14% in 2014.

The shorter shift patterns associated with operational projects is also good news for skilled workers. However, a growing FIFO workforce will heap further pressure on infrastructure. Resources sector passenger movements through Perth Airport are set to reach 313,000 above the 2014 level by 2020.

"The first six months of FIFO work is make or break. Support for the worker’s partner at home and the family unit is so important."

"Despite a smaller workforce by 2020, the shorter shift patterns of an operational workforce will see more passenger movements at the airport," confirmed Howard-Smith.

Altered state? The parliamentary inquiry into workplace mental health

With the 29 January deadline for submissions to the state parliamentary inquiry now passed, the Education and Health Standing Committee is assessing a wealth of FIFO-related evidence from the mining industry operators, employee unions, mental health practitioners and local advocacy groups.

The committee will focus on contributing factors that may lead to mental illness and suicide among FIFO workers, legislation, regulations, policies and practice related to workplace mental health, and current initiatives by government, industry and community, before recommending improvements.

The CME has stated that FIFO is vital in helping to address skills shortages in the resources sector in Western Australia. It also claims that a 2013 Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry received no evidence supporting a claim that mental health issues were any higher among FIFO workers than in the wider workforce, despite hundreds of submissions, and numerous site visits and public hearings.

Many others remain unconvinced. Nicole Ashby established FIFO Families in July 2010 to assist in supporting FIFO workers and their families, and foster collaboration with resource companies.

She believes potential workers should have an induction period to assess if they have the personality to cope with the lifestyle, and that the impact that the lifestyle can have on workers' mental health and the pressure on their families who live without them for extended periods isn't fully understood.

"The first six months of FIFO work is make or break," she said. "Support for the worker's partner at home and the family unit is so important."

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