Editorial: Do FIFO operations aggravate mental health problems?

Worldwide, Western Australia could be considered ground zero for fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mining operations, with thousands of mining personnel daily making the air commute from home in pleasant cities like Perth to work for long stretches at mine sites in the state’s remote, inhospitable interior, with typical rotations as such as eight days on-site working 12-hour days, followed by six days off, with paid travel time.

In fact, an astounding 60,000 people in WA work FIFO jobs out of a population of only 2.6 million people. If each FIFO worker has three direct family members, that would mean almost a tenth of the WA population is directly affected by the FIFO lifestyle.

Although Australian mining jobs are well-paying, the FIFO schedule — which can reach as high as four weeks on (i.e., twenty-eight 12-hour work days in a row), one week off — puts considerable strain on a worker’s personal life and physical health.

But compared to building company towns for miners and their families, the cost savings of FIFO operations can be enormous — as much as A$100,000 per year, per employee.

The apparent cost on WA mine workers took on a much darker tone, with media reports in mid-2014 that up to nine suicides in the previous 12 months in the state might have been linked to the victims’ having been working at FIFO jobs.

This triggered a study by the Education and Health Standing Committee of the Parliament of Western Australia. Its final report, “The Impact of FIFO work practices on mental health,” was made public in late June.

While the committee could not definitively link FIFO jobs to the suicides in question, it did point to three studies that indicate the rate of mental health problems for FIFO workers in Australia could be as high as 30%, versus a rate of 20% for all men in Australia aged 25 to 44 — which is the typical profile of FIFO workers at WA mines. (The results of such studies are further complicated by the fact this demographic already shows the highest rates of mental health problems.)

As the report states: “FIFO takes such an individual regularly away from home, puts him in isolation from his family and other social supports, subjects him to fatigue and then controls his life within the camp environment. Understandably, this can have a significant impact on his emotional health and well-being.”

The biggest stumbling block for the committee in its effort was a lack of detailed data, and so among the committee’s most important recommendations was that the coroner should establish a single database of suicides for specific occupations, including FIFO workers.

The committee also lamented that “confusion was evident around which regulator had jurisdiction for overseeing the occupational health and safety matters impacting on the FIFO worker.”

While some witnesses argued that potential employees should be better screened for their resilience to FIFO work, the committee bluntly stated the industry should recognize and address the potential vulnerabilities of all workers to mental health problems arising from FIFO work, and that industry players should develop a code of practice regarding mental health issues at FIFO operations. And this code should incorporate better reporting of suicides, attempted suicides and other deaths on-site.

Committee chairman Dr. G.G. Jacobs pointedly commented he was “disappointed to find that recognition of the importance of connection to family and community to workers’ mental health is not widespread,” and “closer interaction between accommodation camps and communities is thought to be good for both.”

The biggest miners in the state — such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, as well as oil giant Chevron — welcomed the report and said they would study it, and extolled their own extensive programs related to worker well-being and good mental health.

With FIFO operations only growing in use worldwide as mines are built in increasingly remote locations, mining companies, mine workers and regulatory bodies would do well to keep an eye on developments in industry-leading Western Australia, with respect to the critical issue of workers’ mental health.


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