Six months ago, the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP) funded a scoping study into fitness for duty to assess current practice in the coal industry. This initial study has just been completed and while researchers found nothing unexpected, some of the emerging issues point to the lack of a long-term, systematic approach to fitness for duty.
Fitness for duty covers a broad range of issues including the use of drugs, alcohol, fatigue, physical and psychological impairment. As such it is a veritable minefield that cuts across a raft of areas, including industrial relations, management issues, discrimination, lifestyle, habits, even diet.
Consider these thorny issues: What if an underground operator is potentially too unfit to rescue himself in an emergency? At what point does fatigue make operating machinery dangerous? Can a clinically depressed machine operator pose a risk to himself and others? If a worker is found to be on drugs, should the mine report him to the police?
Scoping study project manager, David Cliff, said the initial research indicated an overemphasis on testing as the solution to managing fitness for duty. One reason for this is probably the fact that testing offers mine management quantifiable results. Fitness for duty is, however, not a hard science, amenable to ‘engineered’ solutions.
In addition, the limitations of this testing, both legally and practically, were not always properly understood. For example, while levels for alcohol impairment are well documented, there is no agreed impairment level for drugs. Testing, while useful for assessing elements of fitness for duty, should be seen as part of an entire system, rather than the system itself.
Despite this, Cliff said other industries in general were not as organised as mining on overall fitness for duty management and have not implemented testing programs.
A related issue was the lack of ongoing systematic communication and education. It would appear that in some instances, once a mine had tackled an issue, or implemented a health promotion project, the issue was considered handled. Little follow-up was attempted, nor was the process ongoing. Related to this was the finding that supervisors needed to be more adequately trained to recognise and manage fitness for duty issues.
There were a number of issues that were significant to a small number of mines including management of heat stress, lifestyle, aging workforce and physical fitness, contractor safety management, diet, working safely, rehabilitation, job efficiency, issues associated with fly in fly out operations.
Cliff said physical impairment was an area of growing concern. The report recommends that the assessment of the physical fitness of a worker for duty be related to the tasks required. For example, someone shown to be incapable of self-rescue in an underground mine (perhaps because of obesity) could be offered the opportunity to change jobs. Avoiding discrimination was a key tenet.
The report found that general fitness for duty testing devices were not definitive. There was no demonstrated link between these devices and psychological/physical impairment, nor were they able to effectively screen for drugs or alcohol.
“Fitness for duty testing devices should be used in addition to other fitness for duty management and control techniques not instead of them. General fitness for duty testing devices should be capable of being used at any stage of a shift to indicate the current worker’s state of fitness,” the report said.
Another finding was that the health data currently collected on coal mine workers was not used for strategic health surveillance. The report pointed out that the Joint Coal Board is currently funding a scoping study being carried out by SIMTARS to look at establishing a national mining industry health surveillance database.
Among the report’s 18 recommendations were for additional research to be undertaken in a range of areas such as managing heat stress and physical fitness; identifying the best way to manage psychological impairment such as stress; and the development of systems for tracking the fitness of duty of contractors working across a number of sites.
Principal researchers were Carmel Bofinger and Elizabeth Mahon, SIMTARS and Kathryn Heiler, ACIRRT. Over six months, over 80 interviews were carried out with mine personnel, industry experts, government bodies, mining industry bodies, equipment and service providers, researchers and OH and S managers from other key industries relevant to the mining industry.
The full text of the project summation may be viewed on the ACARP website.