Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mining workers experience significant physical and mental strain, which demands attention in the current environment. The mining industry in Australia has shown interest in the well-being of its employees and has implemented programs to enhance efficiency, safety, and productivity in mining sites. These initiatives by the mining industry followed the government’s steps to address mental health concerns associated with FIFO working.

Mineral Resources (MinRes), a leading mining company in Western Australia, launched a new initiative in March 2023 to address the challenges mining industry workers face. As part of this initiative, MinRes constructed two resort-style accommodation villages, which set a new standard for the FIFO lifestyle in Australia, and launched direct flights to two of its mine sites.

In a bid to enhance the living conditions of its workers, the company has introduced resort-style accommodation for its workforce. It created 750 rooms at its Onslow Iron project in the Pilbara region, each measuring 45 square metres, nearly three times larger than the traditional FIFO accommodation.

In January 2024, the company also launched direct flights between Brisbane and two MinRes mine sites in the Pilbara to reduce travel time and costs for its employees.

Direct flights for FIFO workers

The company contracted Skytraders, an Australian-owned airline, to operate weekly return flights between the AvCair terminal at Brisbane Airport, its Ken’s Bore site in Onslow, and the Wodgina mine site in the Pilbara.

On 11 January, the Brisbane-Ken’s Bore flight took off, covering a 3700km route that took 5 hours and 45 minutes to travel west and just under five hours on the return leg. This new service represents a significant reduction in travel time and cost for MinRes employees and contractors who live in Queensland or elsewhere on Australia’s east coast.

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MinRes general manager for people facilities Bethanie Ibrahim said: “Direct interstate flights make it faster, easier and cheaper for our people and contractors to travel to and from MinRes sites. For many of our workforce who live in Queensland or elsewhere on the east coast, these services will reduce their travel time by one full day.”

Previously, workers had to travel to the Pilbara mine sites at their own expense on a much longer route.

Speaking about the measures during the company’s half-year results conference, MinRes’ managing director Chris Ellison said: “Typically, a FIFO worker on the east coast has to pay their fares to Perth overnight, at their own cost, and then they go up the Pilbara the next day. So, a day and a half each way, [and] they have to write money out of their pocket. We’re five and a half hours from Brisbane direct onto our mine sites, at our cost.”

“We’re tapping a whole brand-new workforce. We are the go-to place for that whole labour pool coming off the East Coast right now.”

The Onslow Iron project employs about 1600 people, including contractors, with around 10% residing in the eastern states, mostly in Queensland. The company hopes to attract more skilled workers nationwide as it faces a tight labour market. To achieve this, MinRes is actively recruiting for several roles, such as mobile plant operators, project engineers, earthworks supervisors, MC drivers, and medics.

MinRes executive general manager Andrea Chapman said: “This investment in direct services to and from Brisbane will reduce fatigue and ensure our people have more time to spend at home with family and friends. As the nationwide race for talent intensifies, we know our focus on wellbeing will help MinRes attract and retain the best people to ensure our projects are a success.”

Resort-style accommodation for FIFO workers

Aside from providing direct flights to its employees, the company wants to ensure they enjoy a comfortable and balanced lifestyle by offering six-figure salaries and luxurious resort-style accommodation. The company said these employee benefits are designed to promote a healthy work-life balance and help them be productive and happy at work and outside.

Talking about the on-site accommodation, Ellison: “Every room that we’re installing from now on is capable of housing couples. So, we’re looking for a different culture in the mining industry, safer, friendly for females, great facilities, and we’re giving them a home away from home.”

“In other words, instead of living in their little donga, they go back to a 31 square metre room with a beautiful ensuite, laundry, all the trimmings. They all get a barbeque on the balcony. And it’s like a home for them,” he added.

The company said its living quarters were specifically designed to ensure the health and wellbeing of its workforce as a top priority. Additionally, the resorts aim to encourage more women and couples to work on Australia’s most recent iron ore project.

Lachie Samuel Mariu, managing director of FIFO Mental Health Group, told Mining Technology: “They [workers] will feel more comfortable leaving their homes to spend one, two or even three weeks away. Honestly, I still remember the worst camps I’ve ever been to, and the thought of going back to those makes me cringe because when the day is done and you just want to relax, it makes a massive difference having a nicer, cleaner donga.”

The resorts offer various features to meet these objectives, such as an Olympic-size swimming pool, an indoor fitness centre and gym, a café serving barista-made coffee and a recreation building including a cinema, pool tables, and golf simulators. Additionally, there are multi-purpose basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts, a football oval with goal posts and cricket nets, a mini-golf course, a fitness park with outdoor gym facilities, and a wellness loop with a running track.

In January, an Indigenous-owned business was awarded a four-year contract to develop Mineral Resources’ accommodation facilities in Western Australia, including the FIFO resort in the state. Initially, BriJarCass Security will manage the utility services at Ken’s Bore resort, which has 500 rooms and is being built as part of MinRes’ flagship Onslow Iron project.

The company said that the Onslow Iron project will ship around 35 million tonnes of iron ore per year starting in mid-2024. During construction, the project is expected to create about 2,100 construction jobs and 6,300 indirect jobs.

Addressing mental health strain on FIFO workers

The mental health of FIFO mining workers has been in the spotlight in recent years, as workers are at risk of suffering poor mental health compared to many other industries. Poor mental health is prevalent amongst FIFO workers, with severe stress levels contributing to high suicide rates and psychological distress, according to many studies.

Australia’s former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government announced an A$6m grant to MATES in Construction in 2022 to boost support for the mental health and wellbeing of remote workers in the construction, mining, energy, and manufacturing industries.

Then Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, said MATES in Construction would work with these industries to drive better mental health and suicide prevention in the FIFO and the drive-in, drive out (DIDO) workforce.

“Australian FIFO workers spend great amounts of time away from family, friends and loved ones throughout their working lives, which can cause mental health concerns,” Hunt said in 2022. “These workers experience higher levels of psychological distress—including anxiety and depression—with 33% of FIFO workers reporting ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of psychological distress.”

Overcoming negative perceptions is a challenge faced by many mental health industries.

However, in this case, the Western Australian mining industry can benefit from previously studied and published policies and recommendations.

Mining Technology reported that the state’s code of practice for protecting the mental health of FIFO workers, developed in collaboration with industry bodies like the Mining Industry Advisory Committee, is an important starting point for improving mental health across Western Australian mining. This code of practice was published in 2018 and has the potential to be a crucial building block for mental health improvements.

Mineral Resources’ steps towards improving the working and living conditions of its employees and contractors in the mining industry are very important. The company’s move to introduce direct flights between Brisbane and its mine sites in the Pilbara and the construction of resort-style accommodation is expected to attract numerous workers.

FIFO Mental Health Group’s Mariu added: “I think most companies are really just starting to dip a toe in this space. There are companies like Webdrill, IGO, Fortescue and Rio Tinto who have really put some focus into this area, through peer support groups, coaching by clinical [psychologists], on-site chaplains, so that’s a massive positive. In saying this, most companies rely solely on their EAP [employee assistance programme]. The problem is that most EAPs are overwhelmed with the influx of calls, and miners have to wait three to four weeks for an appointment.” These initiatives showcase the mining industry’s growing concern for employee welfare and are likely to pave the way for similar programs in the future.