Mental health in mining: laying the blueprint with Western Australian FIFO workers

JP Casey 23 September 2020 (Last Updated September 22nd, 2020 14:47)

While physical safety is often a top priority for miners, mental health challenges receive far less attention. A recent audit from the Western Australian Government found that companies are eager to see better mental health frameworks put in place, with the plight of FIFO workers serving as an example for those across the state’s mines.

Mental health in mining: laying the blueprint with Western Australian FIFO workers
“All organisations, including those that employ FIFO workers, can develop and improve a mentally healthy workplace,” said Andrew Chaplyn. Credit: Stuart Smith via Studia Photos

The very nature of the mining industry lends itself to discussions regarding worker safety. As human workers interact with heavy industrial equipment, as miners themselves excavate minerals from tunnels beneath the Earth’s surface, there has rightly been much attention paid to the physical safety of these individuals across the world, and this emphasis is yielding results.

Data from the US Mine Safety and Health Administration revealed that 2019 saw the lowest number of US fatalities on record, just 24, down from 27 in each of the previous two years. Meanwhile, Safe To Work Australia reports that in the 12 months to 30 July this year, there were just five fatalities in Australian mining, down from six the year before, as safety improves around the world.

However, often lost in the shuffle are the dangers to workers’ mental health, with such strains and conditions harder to catalogue and categorise than physical injuries, but no less dangerous. To improve the Australian mining industry’s performance with regard to mental health protection, the Western Australia Government has published an audit into mental health among its miners, which itself builds on an earlier report into the mental health of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers in particular, those who live and work at a remote mine site for months at a time, before returning to their families for a similar period of time.

The audit has revealed that many of the challenges facing FIFO workers are applicable across the mining industry, highlighting that many of these difficulties are not unique, and hopefully pointing towards a holistic response to improve mental health across Australian mining.

The new audit

The Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety’s (DMIRS) audit is designed to help industry assess risk management and systems of work with the aim of developing and maintaining mentally healthy workplaces,” said Andrew Chaplyn, director of mine safety at the state body. “It replaces the psychosocial harm audit that has been available for a number of years [and] is designed to help identify strengths and opportunities for improvement.”

The audit polled 1,000 individuals in businesses across the state to find their greatest concerns for worker safety in the future, and the most common response was a demand for business continuity plans amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with 60% of respondents calling for such logistical and organisational structure.

Other popular responses were a demand for more on-the-ground support for colleagues struggling with mental health concerns, with 59% of respondents identifying this is as a priority, and 44% of organisations claiming that providing any kind of mental health support for employees ought to be a priority for organisations.

While these figures refer to Western Australian employment in general, rather than mining in particular, there are a number of trends in this broader field that are applicable to the mining industry. The desire for a more robust framework to deal with mental health concerns such as stress, caused by either the Covid-19 pandemic in the short-term, or general work pressures in the long-term, is one shared by the mining industry, and Chaplyn is eager to see this shift begin with greater education within Australian mining

“To improve mental health on Western Australian mine sites, DMIRS works to increase awareness of the factors that contribute to, and inhibit, good mental health,” Chaplyn said. “Integrating these factors into the current understanding of what represents a safe system of work can be a challenging task.

“The negative perception of mental health is another challenge that impacts those experiencing difficulties, and on the willingness of others to offer assistance. It may also have a negative impact on an organisation’s willingness to take the development of mentally healthy workplaces seriously.”

From FIFO workers to all employees

Overcoming this “negative perception” is a challenge faced by many industries where mental health concerns are prevalent, but Western Australian mining has an advantage in that many of the recommendations and policies being considered are based on a study which has already been published. Published in 2018, and alongside industry bodies such as the Mining Industry Advisory Committee, the state’s code of practice for safeguarding the mental health of FIFO workers could prove to be a vital building block in improving mental health across Western Australian mining.

“The [latest] audit was developed by specialist workplace inspectors who are registered psychologists specialising in organisational psychology and clinical psychology,” explained Chaplyn. “The inspectors developed the audit based on years of existing research from organisational and clinical psychology, along with the research conducted in 2018. The 2018 research reinforced the nature and extent of the mental health issues that workers may face, including those who work on remote fly-in fly-out worksites.”

The 2018 report highlighted a number of potential causes of mental health concerns within Australian mining, and found that FIFO workers are exposed to more intense forms of many of these risks. For instance, the psychosocial hazard of “work demands” places stress on workers because of the existence of repetitive or monotonous tasks and the excessive demands of mining work, risks which are exacerbated by working long hours, or over several consecutive days, both common aspects of FIFO work.

Indeed, several sections of this report are given over entirely to threats to FIFO workers in particular, with extreme environmental conditions, the need to work remotely, the isolated nature of work, and heightened levels of physical and mental fatigue all disproportionately affecting FIFO workers by the nature of their jobs.

Chaplyn went on to comment that many of these stresses are related to the social and psychological nature of these workplaces, rather than strictly the physical stresses of working in remote locations, establishing a clear connection between situations that trigger mental stress and lower levels of general mental health.

“Workplace psychosocial hazards are related to the psychological and social conditions of the workplace rather than just the physical conditions,” Chaplyn said. “These include stress, fatigue, bullying, violence, aggression, harassment, and burnout, which can be harmful to the health of workers and compromise their wellbeing. There are also risk factors, such as misuse of alcohol or other drugs, and poor change management that increase the risk or susceptibility for harm to health from exposure to a hazard.”

A holistic response to universal challenges

Yet these pressures are not without relief, as the experience of FIFO workers, and the reporting on their situation, could help set a blueprint for frameworks and legislation to be rolled out across Western Australian mining. With the state’s businesses calling for greater support in increasingly financially unstable and personally challenging times, there is hope that awareness could spread from FIFO workers in particular to miners in general.

Chaplyn tied these two aspects together, highlighting several responses available to miners, regardless of whether they employ FIFO workers or not. Indeed, the shared stresses of FIFO and fixed-shift employees create a universal problem, and one that Chaplyn hopes can be tackled through an equally holistic solution.

“All organisations, including those that employ FIFO workers, can develop and improve a mentally healthy workplace by: providing an environment that promotes good health and wellbeing; applying a risk management process to avoid or minimise the harm from psychosocial hazards and risk factors; [and] providing an environment that supports recovery,” Chaplyn said.

“Improving the mental health and wellbeing of workers in the Western Australia resources sector requires a whole-of-community [and] whole-of-government approach. We all have a role to play and it is important for all stakeholders and government departments to contribute as best they can, within their area of expertise.”

While coordinating such a pan-industry response is undoubtedly a challenge, Chaplyn is also confident that the dual outcomes of improved personal health and improved commercial performance will serve as parallel motivators to embrace solutions to mental health challenges across the state.

“Committing resources to these areas is also known to have a positive impact on productivity, which ultimately has a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by effectively managing risks through promotion and prevention.”