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Inquiries into fly-in fly-out workers reveal hidden depression and an industry in denial. With the weakening mining sector now delivering redundancies, it will only get worse.

By Max Opray.

Mining downturn hits FIFO mental health

It was mid-morning when Sue Crock sent through the text. “Not had one person willing to talk about their redundancy, I’m sorry,” the message read. “Lots of fear around.”

The social worker has been dealing with this evolving climate of anxiety for years in her role as co-ordinator of This FIFO Life, a West Australian Mental Health Commission-funded support service for fly-in fly-out workers. The fear permeating this industry might be more evident now with the collapse of the resources sector, but it was always lurking beneath the surface, even when the mining boom was still booming.

In mid-2013, Rhys Connor wasn’t afraid to come forward, but by that point the 25-year-old believed he had little to lose. The young concreter volunteered to be interviewed by Crock just days before he committed suicide in the lonely predawn darkness of his Pilbara donga, during a stint with Rio Tinto’s appropriately named Hope Downs iron ore operation. Connor was one of nine resources industry workers in Western Australia to take their own lives during a 12-month period, a pattern that prompted WA’s education and health standing committee to launch a parliamentary inquiry into FIFO work in August last year. The Queensland government has just started a similar investigation. 

The WA inquiry, due to report in June, is scrutinising a division of the workforce that even in its heyday was a standard bearer for a multitude of mental health red flags – workers overrepresented in the highest suicide risk demographic of 15- to 44-year-old males, engaged in shift work in tightly regulated, company-owned villages often situated in remote locations far from family. In that final interview with Crock, Connor – who was dealing with the end of a relationship at the time – explained how tough he found this world, and warned anyone thinking of entering to consider more than just the lucrative money on offer.

“You’re in your room every night of the week,” he said. “You just think about things. You think about your family and what they’re doing now. You miss your family.”

His stepfather and fellow FIFO worker Peter Miller advised the inquiry committee that Connor begged him not to report his depression to the on-site support services, fearing that his employer, OTOC Limited, would sack Connor if they found out. It’s the sort of cultural problem the education and health standing committee has heard about time and time again over the course of its investigation – claims of workers choosing not to take their antidepressants out of fear it would turn up on mandatory company drug tests, of macho work environments that look down upon depression as a kind of weakness, of recruiters actively screening out job candidates who admitted to mental health issues.

Thanks to the inquiry and the campaigning efforts of family members, the issue has been gaining more attention of late, with initiatives to tackle these problems gathering momentum. These include the industry-backed partnership between Mining Family Matters and Wesley LifeForce’s suicide prevention networks. The media, politicians and mining company head honchos have also acknowledged to varying degrees the mental health challenges of FIFO work. During all this talk of reform, however, the downturn in the resources sector has added yet another mental health risk factor into the mix – thousands upon thousands of people losing their jobs.

Those left standing are being driven harder than ever before to make up for the lost staff, making the quest to improve working conditions seem ever more unlikely. After slashing 700 jobs in response to the iron ore price halving in the space of a year, Fortescue Metals Group moved the remaining workforce from an eight-day-on, six-day-off roster to a system where workers are based at home just one-third of the time. Construction and maintenance contractor Goodline upped the ante further in early May by advertising what unions dubbed a “suicide roster” – a 12-weeks-on, one-week-off arrangement. The company reacted to the resulting public outcry by pulling the ad and claiming it had been incorrectly worded.

At the standing committee hearing on May 6, Chevron’s human resources manager Kaye Butler argued that there was no evidence FIFO rostering was connected to suicide rates, and pointed to data Chevron started collecting this year on Barrow Island, the offshore hub of the company’s multibillion-dollar Gorgon LNG project – an operation that had two workers commit suicide during a period of four months in 2014. One of the more frequent roster set-ups on Barrow has FIFO workers operating on a 28-days-on, seven-days-off roster. Noting that extensive support services are available for workers who ask for them, Butler said that if the rate of mental illness among workers matched that of the general population, there should be 1700 workers suffering from mental health problems, yet during the first quarter of the year there were only 227 medical consultations related to mental health.

Butler’s contention was that the fears about the mental health impact of FIFO work were overblown. But one of her inquisitors at the hearing, the state Liberal member for Murray-Wellington, Murray Cowper, asked whether perhaps the dramatically lower-than-national average rate of reported mental illness could be attributed to the reluctance of workers to reveal such issues in the first place.

Butler noted in response that half of the 33 people removed from Barrow Island over mental health concerns had subsequently been returned, and that fears that depression would result in a “window seat” home were unfounded.

The inquiry also heard from the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, which conducted a study based on 994 workers across the resources sector that looked beyond the reported rates of mental health issues. The investigation concluded that FIFO workers were up to 70 per cent more likely to suffer “psychological distress” than the general population.

Grilled by Labor state member for Mirrabooka Janine Freeman about claims of cramped conditions on a barge used as accommodation for Gorgon workers, Butler argued that every time the government required companies to spend money on improving workplace conditions, it was another “nail in the coffin of resource projects in this country”.

“While we can talk about all this adversity, as you call it, I think a bigger adversity would be not having any job at all,” she said.

“And every time we look at trying to create yet another condition, that adds cost to what is already the most expensive construction environment virtually in the world. We are 40 per cent more expensive for major capital projects in this state than we are in the Gulf of Mexico; 20 to 30 per cent more expensive than Canada.”

Back at the headquarters of This FIFO Life Crock agrees that losing a job can devastate one’s mental health, but she doesn’t support the idea that it is an either-or proposition.

“It is easy for employers to wipe their hands and say any job is better than no job, but there is a legal duty of care for employers to look after the mental health of their employees,” she says.

As for those who are indeed losing their positions in the sector right now, Crock is concerned about how the process is being handled. She says that sacked workers often talk of knowing redundancies are going to happen, but not realising they themselves are in the firing line until the last minute, often when they are invited to a meeting at head office or a hotel room where they are informed they are to finish up.

“They can’t return to site and don’t get to see team or friends,” Crock says. “There’s no ritual about finishing, or opportunity to plan for that.”

Sacked FIFO workers don’t just lose their livelihoods, they are effectively evicted from the communities in which they had been embedded for most of each year. These freshly unemployed workers are then spewed out into a challenging job market. The national DFP Mining and Resources Job Index indicates advertised industry positions have dropped by 34 per cent in a year while the overall unemployment rate surges. For those who have locked themselves into exorbitant Perth mortgages based on those high wages the mining sector is renowned for, it is quite the predicament.

It is to be hoped then that when the inquiry tables its findings on June 18, the final recommendations don’t just address the issues faced by those working in the industry, but those being forced out of it as well. The mental health crisis of the mining boom may very well pale in comparison to that of the bust.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Abandoned miners". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.