FIFO wives attend inductions

IN THE past 18 months, the FIFO Families initiative has experienced massive growth in membership and sponsorship as employers recognise that happy families means strong retention of its fly-in, fly-out workforce, lowering attrition and saving recruitment costs.
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Brooke Showers

FIFO Families is unrolling inductions for resource companies over the next couple of months to help workers and their families to understand the impacts of a FIFO lifestyle and equip them with the skills needed to combat those impacts.

“We have individuals and families who are totally unprepared for the challenges of FIFO,” FIFO Families director Nicole Ashby said, speaking at an event in Perth ran by The American Chamber of Commerce in Australia.

”We build social networks, we demonstrate FIFO can be sustainable with effective education, support and life tools.”

There are 90,000 workers currently in the WA mining and resource sector and half of these are in a FIFO work arrangement.

Ashby is a social worker and school teacher by background, mother of three, wife of a fly-in-fly-out rig worker and the smarts behind the FIFO Families initiative.

Her idea was born from her own experience and has helped many mining and resource workers away from home, and their families deal with the stress and isolation that comes with FIFO work.

There are 1200 families which are members of F IFO Families across Australia and New Zealand.

One of the ways FIFO Families makes the FIFO lifestyle sustainable is when their families have access to a supportive and understanding community network, to cope with the stress in the absence of a partner.

Members meet up through the network online and can join local groups established in the area to share support, child care duties and enjoy weekend activities with people in similar lifestyle situations.

There are now 14 local groups established in Perth, five groups in Queensland and one in South Australia.

Darwin launched its first FIFO Families event last weekend and a local group has started to emerge in Tasmania.

One of the areas where FIFO Families has been so successful is because of the notion that a happy family equals a happy worker, and a happy worker is a safer worker, because their mind is on the job and not distracted with private matters.

Stressed employees dealing with issues on the home front can often opt out of FIFO work if they feel their family is not coping.

It’s an extremely costly exercise for companies to replace staff and some figures suggest it can cost up to one and a half times the worker’s wages to replace them.

Companies that wish to attract workers and retain them are partnering with FIFO Families to be an Employer of Choice and offer better community networks for employees.

“If you can get some support around these families, it can certainly lower your attrition rate,” Ashby said.

The costs of constantly replacing workers quickly adds up, when you factor in the two day induction, human resource management, uniforms, getting workers out to site, food, training and administration time.

“If a prominent oil and gas company reduced attrition by just 6%, they would save $16.8 million per annum just to replace those workers,” Ashby said.

Australian mining services company, Ausdrill has been a strong supporter of the FIFO Families initiative.

“Barminco, Minara Resources and Thiess are now on board as well and they are being very fast to recognise and openly acknowledge like defence families the FIFO issues and implement FIFO Families pretty quickly,” Ashby said.

“These companies know that a happy family equals a happy worker.”

If you have a family that can’t cope with the stress of an absent partner and constantly calls the worker, their mind will not be on the job as they constantly worry about what is happening on the home front.

“If we can put that support in around families, it just makes this lifestyle so much easier and sustainable,” Ashby said.

One of the written testimonials, FIFO Families received on its web site was from a FIFO BHP Billiton worker employed at the Area C mine in the Pilbara, whose wife is based in Fremantle.

“I must say, what a wonderful organisation, it simply makes my job that little bit easier knowing that Liz and Isaac have support from other families who know exactly what we’re all going through when I’m working away,” the testimonial read.

“There is nothing worse than worrying about the home front when stuck in the bush for weeks on end and as we all know, a distracted worker is an unsafe worker.”

FIFO Families offer its members a workshop called the Seven Secrets to Harmony Creating Resilient and Truly Connected Families.

The secrets were born from Ashby’s own experience of knowing what is needed to make a FIFO relationship work, and draws on some of her skills through social work and teaching, and feedback from the industry.

The workshop address the optimal use of technology use such as Skype, Viber and Words with Friends, communication techniques, empathy and understanding, and staying connected with children from a distance.

FIFO Families is also working with indigenous employees facing similar issues, Creating Communities and Aussie Relocation Services to apply a holistic approach to addressing FIFO.

One of the secrets is clear - rosters do matter.

“Yes, FIFO is a choice, but if you want to be retaining workers, then you need to start looking at the rosters,” Ashby said.

“Having a family friendly roster is a massive key retention tool.”

Rio Tinto offers an eight days on, six days off roster and a two weeks on, one week off roster, so if workers want to earn more money they can opt for the two and one, and if they’re concerned about their family time, can take the “eight and six”, which is much easier for families to sustain.

Rio employs 20,000 people across its national mining operations and in its iron ore business alone, there are 10,000 people dedicated to the management of 14 mines, three ports and 15 kilometres of rail network.

Fly-in-fly-out options were first introduced at Rio Tinto in the early 1990s and the transport trend has grown significantly to the point where 47% of Rio’s the workforce is FIFO.

“We’ve done this for a number of reasons,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore human resources manager Charlie Burns said.

“Out of necessity as we’ve started mines in increasingly remote locations, to attract and retain the requisite skills needed to maintain our business and to combat a combination of shortages.

“But most of all we’ve offered FIFO because we want to provide flexibility to our workforce.”

Burns, who oversees Rio’s workforce growth program, said he is proud of how the FIFO practice has been built within the company, but acknowledged how the inherent issues of FIFO, is a subject of increasing review and debate in the national agenda, as the resources industry turns to FIFO to enable its aggressive expansion.

Burns said it is important for miners to understand the effects of FIFO on employees and families, because it impacts on business and safety


“If the Australian resource industry is to appraise the current situation honestly, its understanding of the social fabrics of FIFO has not advanced as rapidly as the growth of Australia’s FIFO workforce,” Burns said.

“It is clear that FIFO will be an increasing part of the Australian employment agenda.

“It is timely to invest and understand how we can make FIFO a well-balanced and sustainable practice into the future.”

To meet targets of attract, recruit and retain up to 240,000 workers by 2015, as some estimates suggest, the barriers preventing people from entering the resource sector, such as FIFO work, need to be addressed.

FIFO work can attract negative connotations surrounding disparate family lives and the first six months are crucial.

If the family isn’t coping in that initial period, it is unlikely the worker will stay in the role.

Ashby said the two biggest issues faced by the non-FIFO worker are isolation and loneliness, followed by trust and “resentment.”

That loneliness and isolation hits home for the FIFO workers as well.

FIFO Families holds events on the weekends as it can be a very challenging time when partners are away.

“As a FIFO family you’re very conscious of that so you don’t to ring your friends that aren’t FIFO and say they can we come over and hang out, because they are doing their own precious family things,” Ashby said.

“So this is a perfect time for FIFO families and drive-in-drive-out families to come together on weekends.

“You get instant understanding and recognition of what this lifestyle brings.

“It’s really made communities for people to step into.”

FIFO Families is not only designed for the traditional arrangement of the male away working and mum at home with the children, although this demographic does make up a large portion of the membership.

Other demographics in FIFO work which the initiative has attracted include young partners without children and older spouses whose children have grown up.

As the resources industry recruits more 457 Visa skilled workers from overseas, FIFO Families plays an important role as spouses adjust to a new environment and work lifestyle.

“We establish this ready-made community and we have families which have been in contact with us from South Africa and the UK, looking for that support and network before they even get here,” Ashby said.

“You can be seen as an employer of choice and also as a family friendly company.”

This article first appeared in ILN's sister publication