Considering the huge number of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) and drive-in, drive-out (DIDO) workers in Australia, it is about time the masterplanning and design of remote facilities for miners and CSG workers were placed under the microscope.

Mine accommodations and temporary accommodations have similar characteristics to caravan camps for the grey nomads. From my perspective, prison accommodation is also similar, as a prison encampment has all the facilities that you will find in a remote mining camp: logistical support, independent electricity generation, laundries, cellular rooms, maintenance workshops, and a central administration which surveys the camp. There are also often similar security features and emergency lighting.

The other fundamental similarity of mining and temporary and remote accommodation is that there are usually three shifts of workers in the camp; even during daylight hours the camps may have one third of the workforce occupying the camp. Those employed in these camps are also entirely dependent on the life safety provisions of the accommodation provider; there are no emergency services to respond to a crisis as they are often more than 30 minutes response time from the nearest emergency services. In any emergency scenario, those in the camp would be  woken and required to go to a mustering point, with some occupants staying behind to respond to the emergency.

Grid System: Mining Accommodation

Mining accommodations feature grid layouts similar to gulags

Australia has had unprecedented investment in large infrastructure projects for mines, ports and CSG extraction plants in the past decade, with several large projects on the horizon. Some accommodation for itinerant workers is of an excellent standard while some clearly is not. As one FIFO worker in central Queensland joked, “what is the difference between a mining camp and a gulag? Not a whole lot!”

Indeed, the aesthetic similarities between the two are many. Many mining and accommodation villages are laid out in a grid pattern, with each hut or donga a small distance away from its neighbour. Many of the camps have a barbed wire perimeter fence and sentry post entry, an office building, shower blocks and central dining room, much like a gulag. Perhaps it is just that the most efficient layout, especially in a featureless landscape, is a grid. This reduces the length of run of electrical and potable water runs and sewerage piping. That being said, little effort is made in these camps to cater to the emotional and psychological needs of miners and those who service the miners.

Some miners would argue there is little time to cater for their psychological needs, or for standard leisure activities. It makes for an even more difficult job for many miners who are away from home and family for long periods, working what are often unforgiving and brutal hours.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, state governments preferred mining towns which had all the infrastructure one would expect of a normal town, including ambulance, fire stations, low cost housing, recreation, schooling, post office and telephone, sealed roads and town water supply and sewerage. Towns such as Karratha in W.A. and Moranbah and Blackwater in Queensland were built to service the local mining and extractive industries. Community expectations were that if a mining venture was to take place in an area over decades, then these facilities should be provided.

In the past 10 years, partly due to the remoteness of many of the proposed mining activities and the precarious nature of resource demand, there has been a greater tendency to rely on FIFO or DIDO workers. This places less demand on remote infrastructure, and presumably at less cost to the mining and extractive industries.

FIFO and DIDO workers require additional infrastructure to be built; local airports and fuel depots, water reservoirs and sewerage systems which meet strict environmental requirements. The roads from Moranbah, Emerald to the Coast at Rockhampton and to Mackay are now some of the most congested and dangerous in Australia. As well as miners, these roads service vast areas of agricultural land. There is huge railroad infrastructure associated with many of the largest mines to take the extracted materials to port for shipping.

What has been recognised is that often mining accommodation which was planned as “temporary” often remains for several years and in some cases may still be in place 30 years after its initial deployment.

In Queensland, any accommodation which is in place longer than six months is not considered temporary. The rules for temporary accommodation camps are less stringent than for permanent camps. That is because, as with the CSG infrastructure, there is a requirement for a temporary camp, which may remain a few months. Once this area of infrastructure is complete, the temporary and demountable accommodation, including dining areas and generators, temporary sewerage plant, potable water, ice machines, offices and sundry support sheds, is moved to a new location and re-installed as a temporary base for the next run of infrastructure.

I believe higher quality infrastructure should be build for a mine that has a longer service life – say, of a decade or two. The distinction is often blurred, however, by changing priorities and budgets. One camp may service more than one mine or extraction point. Remote accommodation and infrastructure is expensive often up to four times the cost of locations closer to main cities and supply points.

Certainly, every mine worker, temporary worker, administrator or government employee would expect that the standards for safety including fire safety would be the same as for say, budget accommodation in Queensland and other jurisdictions.

Remote Mining Accommodation

Remote mining accommodation draws more FIFO and DIDO workers

After the Childers backpacker fire in Queensland and the subsequent inquiry, a number of improvements were required to all budget accommodation in Queensland. These included regular inspections of fire escape routes to all accommodation rooms, emergency lighting to all corridors and pathways to a muster area or refuge, fire and smoke alarms in all occupied rooms, kitchens, ablutions areas and storage areas.

The alarms must be connected to a central control board so that if a fire or smoke is present, respondents can know where the emergency is. In another fatality inquest at Blackwater in Queensland, a worker appeared to have a severe asthma attack and had no way to contact the camp office for assistance. One recommendation was that all dongas or sleeping rooms should have an alarm, an intercom or internet connection to contact the office in case of an emergency.

Australian citizens may be alarmed to know that some camp builders and owners are held to less stringent safety criteria than for those for budget accommodation.

Though many remote accommodation sites are more than 30 minutes response time from the nearest fire station, they may not have any requirement to provide fire safety devices and equipment as compared to urban areas. In fact, the mining infrastructure may not even be compatible with normal fire brigade equipment, with extinguisher outlets designed for mines and underground mines rather than normal fire equipment.

This has led some operators to argue that in their “Risk Based” hazard and fire response strategy, all infrastructure would be abandoned in the event of a fire, and no attempt to put a fire out would be made. Alternatively, they may argue that a mine with its attendant infrastructure is a less likely fire hazard than say, a budget accommodation building. Considering the vast amounts of carbon fuels, high voltage wiring, temporary wiring to demountable generators and cool rooms, however, which situation may call for a higher standard of precaution and safety?

Some operators have attempted to circumvent the normal requirement to have a Private Certifier scrutinise the compliance of buildings and mining infrastructure as would occur if a building, workshop, office or occupied building were in an urban or rural area. If a building – including a mining accommodation site – is on a mining lease, this may not come under the local council’s jurisdiction for building compliance. Projects may be deemed to be of “Major Significance” and are therefore only scrutinised at the State level. As it is, the State compliance is risk-based and does not generally follow those which would be expected at local council level, which mandate private certification and reporting on compliance with Australian standards and fire codes.

Most workers and citizens would be perturbed to find that their life safety provisions are less than for those of budget or temporary workers accommodation.

An inquest was held in Western Australia after three fatalities and a number of serious injuries after cyclone George hit the Pilbara coast in early March 2007. The inquest found that the dongas or sleeping quarters were inadequately secured to the ground and during high winds they were dislodged and rolled into each other, trapping the occupants and causing severe injuries and fatalities.

It was also suggested that operators of temporary and permanent mining accommodation and extractive industry accommodation should provide a refuge which can house every occupant in a cyclone or natural disaster shelter and which can withstand cyclonic winds and will not be affected by flash flooding or bush fire. The shelter should have inviolate emergency communications systems, a first aid treatment room and emergency supplies to ensure the occupants would survive any natural disaster which may be anticipated.

I have observed mining accommodation placed in areas which do occasionally flood which left little chance of an emergency response. Mining facilities have an additional risk in that they often have stored large amounts of fossil fuels, and may have a higher risk of gas leaks due to the mining and extractive industries which workers are undertaking. Bush fires occur in remote areas, especially after high rain events, with alarming frequency.

Another issue for mining accommodation is the access which is provided for any emergency response. If the accommodation area has a emergency alarm board which indicates where an emergency fire or smoke event is occurring, the speed of response to the emergency is often the difference between an event which is easily controlled and extinguished and one that may have catastrophic consequences. A road network which permits the traverse of emergency vehicles which will not be bogged or impeded is essential to the safety of large encampments.

Another masterplanning design flaw comes where a road network precludes emergency response – where the distance between accommodation units and infrastructure impedes any emergency response vehicle.

The  layout of the accommodation village should allow for a quick emergency response. Many temporary camps are hastily erected, and as they are temporary they are not required to get building approval, or to seek the scrutiny of a private certifier. That, in my opinion, often leads to masterplanning and layouts which are sub optimal. In some cases the planner or layout designer has no formal qualifications as a building designer or architect. The safety in design provisions of workplace health and safety legislation do not adequately protect the huge number of DIDO and FIFO workers who rely on this accommodation.

As mines compete for skilled workers, some mining accommodation has been designed more like a remote village or resort, where families of mine workers are encouraged to live with their working partners. Some planned mine accommodation features huge apartment like accommodation rooms and ensuites with generous storage, along with central facilities including gymnasiums, cinemas, recreation, swimming pools, and every luxury you would find in a resort village as workers will gravitate to better conditions which is important for retention of a skilled workforce.