Workers at mining sites are often far from home, friends and family, labouring under intensive conditions without the necessary support systems to help them decompress and properly process the stress they may be under. Add to this the remote location of many mines and you are looking at a recipe for trouble, without the usual safety rails of monitoring and enforcement that may help manage the situation. The situation was brought into sharp focus in November 2019 when a mining supervisor was accused of murdering a colleague at a Pilbara mine.

As the mining sector continues to boom and expand in Australia, the industry is only going to have to become more cognisant of potential risks and the proper precautions to keep their workers safe. Mental health has been coming into increasing view in recent years, and while miners have made progress, there are still strides to be made.

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Scarlett Evans (SE): What incentivised you and your colleagues to look at the matter of social dynamics in mining communities?

John Scott (JS): We actually had a grant to look at masculinity and violence in rural and remote areas, which had been a very underexplored topic at the time. Initially we had in mind your more ‘typical’ rural farming communities, but I had a call at that time from a medical specialist who actually worked for a large mining outfit. He was based in Western Australia and was concerned about reports of rapes and STI’s increasing as a result of the mining boom – so that really prompted us to look into these mining communities.

We’ve always known that crimes are commonly associated with migration – if you have a place where people are coming and going, you tend to have a higher crime rate than in those areas where people are more settled. Mining communities represent a very interesting environment when considering this fact. In the mining boom, these localities had a large influx of people from various places – not just in Australia but around the world – in a very short space of time.

SE: How did this influx have an effect on the established communities?

JS: The thing is that you have your established population responding to a lesser-known group coming in. Fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers were going into communities where they may not be that welcome. In our research we went to one place where the local newsagents were selling t-shirts that read ‘FIFO – Fit In or F*** Off’, which summarised this attitude pretty neatly.

A lot of the local communities just didn’t want these workers coming in, and there was the argument that they weren’t adding anything economically to the community. There was a lot of antagonism and hostility at the time and that was sometimes expressed with male-on-male violence, typically involving younger men. I think there are often antagonisms between the ‘established groups’ of communities, and the ‘outsiders’. But it works both ways – FIFO workers are often isolated and can end up feeling very vulnerable, and this kind of situation can really bubble to the top.

SE: Does this actually lead to a spike in crime, or is it more the fear/perception of a lack of safety?

JS: I think there’s a lot of tension that’s created – whether that’s expressed in actual violence is another matter. It’s going to be very variable dependent on communities, and you have to be a little wary of crime statistics anyway. A lot of stuff gets under reported, and in rural communities it’s the underreporting that tends to be a problem, though more relating to issues such as domestic violence. I think we still don’t really address these problems enough, and there isn’t usually enough space in the media for them. It’s far more sensational to look at these ‘vigilante’ mining attacks.

There’s a lot of evidence to show some of the mine workers suffer from a lot of psychological pressures, but where that finds expression is another matter. Does it finds expression in a remote and isolated area, or when they get back home? There’s actually a lot of monitoring that occurs in these mining camps and there are regulations in place that make them very controlled spaces.

SE: How could violence and crime be avoided in these areas?

JS: It’s always going to vary from place to place, from organisation to organisation. It’s dependent on whether camps have security cameras, whether people are encouraged to report issues and how crimes are handled if they do come up. Sometimes if problems are reported, the responding punishments may be quite stringent to dissuade these events from happening – helping to prevent further instances.

The last mining boom happened so quickly and a lot of things hadn’t been considered. As a result there was a lot of fear and disinformation – people don’t like change and we’re talking about massive upheavals to some places that were usually very quiet. There are also a lot of tensions between community members, with the belief that some were benefitting from the mining boom while others weren’t. So we’re looking at tensions with FIFO, and within the established group as well. Crime, or even simply fear of crime, often acts as a bit of a lightning rod for a whole range of other anxieties that come about in this situation.

SE: Did you see this tension at every place you visited?

JS: There was often tension, but my sense was that it was more in places that had seen massive ruptures overnight, and a significant increase in population – places that were unaccustomed to change at this magnitude. So I think it’s relative to the scale of the change.

SE: Is the situation different now than with the last mining boom?

JS: From what I understand, as a result of some of the concerns that were raised in the last mining boom I think a lot of companies have started putting things in place around consumption of alcohol, drug use, issues around violence and how it’s regulated, as well as general relationships with local communities. I think things have certainly changed, and there’s more awareness. People learn from experience, companies learn from experience and they ultimately don’t want the bad publicity. You can never prevent things from occurring entirely, but looking at the statistics, I don’t think there was a big spike in the last few years in instances of criminal violence or activity.

I think when considering crime and violence you have to look at all the factors at play, not just the stereotypes of one particular group. Mining is a tough line of work and can be quite isolating, with a lot of potential psychological impacts. There are fairly high rates of potential suicide, depression, and mental illness. These workers can be quite vulnerable, and can be victims of violence in those settings as well. I guess one of the lessons from the last mining boom is to have a greater awareness of the vulnerabilities that this population experiences, and I think this is something that people are starting to really respond to.