A spate of suicides in the mining industry has prompted an official inquiry into the extreme stresses and difficulties faced by fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers.
At least nine FIFO personnel have committed suicide in just the past year, raising concerns over the toll that strenuous work schedules are taking on young men employed by Australia’s mining sector.
26-year old drilling engineer Rob, whose full name has been withheld from the public, was one of the nine FIFO employees who felt compelled to take their own lives due to the mental stresses induced by their intensive working hours.
The young engineer committed suicide at his place of work in Queensland, which was a coal seam exploration site operated by gas producer QGC, in November of last year.
According to Rob’s partner Christine, who requested that both their surnames be withheld from the public by the press, the young engineer’s work roster entailed working three weeks on and three weeks off at the remote site. She claims that while on shift Rob worked for 12 hours a day every day, sleeping and eating at the rig site itself and remaining on call for 24 hours.
Christine said her partner considered these working conditions to be a “living hell,” and that his poor mental state was exacerbated by onerous work expectations, which included signing off on safety and environmental approvals that the 26-year-old felt beyond his expertise.
In response to the concerns raised by the families of mining personnel, the West Australian Parliament has launched an inquiry into the links between FIFO work rosters, poor mental health and suicide.
The Education and Health Parliamentary Standing Committees will investigate the key factors which lead to mental illness and suicide in FIFO workers, as well as Western Australia’s existing legislation and policies in relation to workplace mental health, and potential improvements to initiatives already in place.
“It’s important we look at the current initiatives employed by the government and by industry…what responsibility employees have and what responsibility employers have,” said committee chairman Dr Graham Jacobs.
Remedy measures could include instituting a 3/1 week roster in place of the longer 4/1 schedule, which is commonplace in the industry and blamed by the unions for causing stresses in the personal lives of mining workers.
Due to the urgency of the issue, which has taken at least nine lives in just the past year, the Western Australia inquiry is expected to have a preliminary report ready for Parliament prior to the Christmas adjournment, and a final report on the first Thursday of 2015.
Christine has called for other states to follow suit, given that the problem is an “industry-wide” issue.
Leading members of industry have also voiced their concerns about the problem. Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Andrew Harding, for example, joined the Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention in July, and has spoken of the need for put mental health concerns on an equal footing with physical safety.
“Twenty years ago we were learning about physical safety. Mental health-type stuff has been quite a bit more recent,” said Harding. “We’re not at the very beginning of the journey, we’re at the beginning of how we work with these sort of issues.”
The demographic profile of mining workers in Australia already puts them at increased risk of suicide. WA mental health commissioner Tim Marney pointed out that 80 per cent of FIFO workers are men and their average age is 38, while the majority of suicides occur in the 15- to 44-year-old age bracket, and four out of five suicides are male.
According to Marney, FIFO schedules can then severely exacerbate this heightened risk level, given that “shift work..has been clinically proven to mess with mental health.”