FIFO report calls for code of practice

WESTERN Australia’s Education and Health Standing Committee yesterday handed down its report into fly-in, fly-out work practices and their impact on mental health, making 42 findings and 30 recommendations.
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Kristie Batten

The inquiry received over 130 formal submissions, which the report said was a reflection of high number of FIFO workers in WA.

There are around 60,000 FIFO workers in WA and the report suggests that when family is taken into account, FIFO directly impacts 9.3% of the state’s population.

The inquiry revealed the scarcity of reliable, comprehensive data on suicides within the FIFO work system and was unable to identify the nine reported FIFO-linked suicides that triggered the inquiry.

As a result, several of the recommendations concerned data collection.

Based on other research, the mental distress rate among FIFO workers is 30%, above the general population rate of 20%, but the report recommended further research be carried out.

But the committee warned that existing research must not be ignored, and the government needed to act now.

The report recommended four issues to be addressed in any legislative change: that the words ‘health’ and ‘hazard’ should include ‘mental health’ and ‘psychological hazard’; FIFO accommodation facilities are not currently covered by the occupational safety and health provisions for individuals who are off‐shift and residing in the facility; all suicides and attempted suicides must be reported to the Department of Mines and Petroleum; and making it a legal requirement that the mine manager reports deaths by any cause to the DMP.

The establishment of a code of practice was also recommended due to the challenges of the FIFO lifestyle, and the committee rejected the notion that some workers were more suited to FIFO than others.

“Rather than trying to screen for and recruit workers able to withstand the challenges of a FIFO role, industry’s emphasis should be on tailoring FIFO roles to accommodate the mental health needs of workers,” the report said.

According to the recommendations, a proposed code of practice should encourage even-time rosters like two weeks on, one week off or eight days on, six days off; acknowledge the impact of fatigue on mental health; promote positive workplace culture and development anti-bullying measures; acknowledge the impact of FIFO on relationships; emphasise the need for high quality communication; develop accommodation facilities with recreational facilities; and address the levels of control exercised over workers within camps.

“The current legislation lacks a clearly defined responsibility for workers’ health and safety once they are off‐shift and residing in the accommodation facility,” committee chair Graham Jacobs said.

“This is despite the fact the worker has no choice but to stay in the facility provided, no control over the quality or safety of the facility, and often, must seek permission to leave the facility, even on the worker’s day off.”

The committee said the industry did not appear to be sufficiently devoted to establishing residential and FIFO camps close to communities, given that closer interaction was thought to be good for both.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia CEO Reg Howard-Smith said the report represented an opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of the complex issue of mental health and suicide prevention.

“Mental health and wellbeing is a broad issue affecting many in the Western Australian community, making responsibility for mental health issues a shared one – for individuals, government, community and industry,” he said.

But Howard-Smith said there had been a dramatic improvement in conditions, rosters and facilities over the past decade.

“Independent research has highlighted the majority of resources companies provide counselling services and promote awareness of wellbeing issues via their fit for work and health promotion programs,” he said.

Howard-Smith said the sector supported the use of robust and peer-reviewed research to inform continuous improvement efforts.

“Industry would urge the government when considering its response to recommendations to focus on quality research and data, rather than on anecdotal and emotive evidence,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s important for us all to remember that FIFO remains a matter of choice for employees – a choice about where they live and where they choose to work.”