FIFO health woes

by 14 May 2012

If your organisation is engaged in non-residential workforce (NRW) practices, there is little doubt that there are some alarming trends emerging around the health and wellbeing of your workforce.

The ongoing Federal inquiry into Fly in- Fly out (FIFO) and DIDO (Drive In-Drive Out) mining operations is exposing significant concerns around high risk behaviours, mental health issues and a deterioration of physical wellbeing leading to obesity, fatigue and sleep disorders. Managing the health and wellbeing of your workforce has never been more important - particularly given the push towards greater productivity of an already stretched workforce resource.

There is no doubt whatsoever that FIFO and DIDO workforce practices will remain in the Australian mining landscape and indeed show exponential growth over the next 2-3 years. It is simply impracticable to target a residential workforce and indeed the very nature of the infrastructure requirements for a residential workforce makes it unmanageable, costly and highly unattractive to mining organisations. Residents based areas such as Broken Hill and MountIsa have their own set of unique problems with accommodating their own workforce numbers, not to mention non-residents, who fly in for projects, maintenance periods and smaller FIFO operations.

Then there are the purpose built towns made by and for mining operations littered around the country in rural areas such as Claremont, Tieri and Middlemount in Queensland and Telfer, which was originally built by Newmont Mining in 1972 in the Pilbara region.

What most locations have been able to clearly demonstrate, is their lack of ability in being able to adequately resource to maintain the health and wellbeing of their respective workforces. Indeed, in areas such as Mount Isa, where I managed to work as a contractor over a 10 year period, the impact that mining operations have on both the private and public health systems can be quite debilitating and more often than not, leaves them unable to attract and retain the sort of specialist, occupational health and medical services so desperately needed. To make matters worse for residential workers, their family medical requirements, such as paediatric, orthodontic and other public health requirements cannot be met and, in complete reversal to non-residential workers, they need to fly in-fly out for medical services.

The old adage “if in pain, catch a plane” is alive and well in a large percentage of rural mining towns.

It should come as no surprise that FIFO and DIDO operations have an effect on their local communities and one only needs to open up any Queensland or Western Australian newspaper to gain some understanding of the problems presented to the Federal Government’s FIFO enquiry, which is currently doing the rounds of mining communities in Western Australia.

For me, the most pressing issue surrounding FIFO and DIDO operations is that of the health and wellbeing of the individual workers and how, by getting that wrong, we run the risks of endangering not just the individuals themselves, but the overall viability of mining organisation engaged in this unique workforce solution.

Easily accessible and low cost mass air travel has created new opportunities for organisations and individuals and the fact that the resource sector has adopted non-resident workforce (NRW) practices on a larger scale than any other industry should be cause for reflection on the greater workforce flexibility that can be achieved under innovative agreements (Queensland Resource Council. Inquiry into Fly In-Fly Out and Drive In-Drive Out workforces, October 2011 report to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia).

One of the key benefits for FIFO workers is their ability and freedom to choose where to live and where to work and by doing so, maintain both family and social networks in their home communities. Arguably, the health strain placed upon their work location is reduced compared to if the whole family moved. By staying in their normal place of living, both the worker and his or her family, maintain their normal health and medical requirements within their communities that, more often than not, include more family orientated medical and health services such as those mentioned previously in this article.

By maintaining the family nucleus, at least from a statistical perspective, family members are less likely to require more specialist and mental health services than would be the case if they were isolated away from family and friends.

Whilst this arrangement may accommodate the remaining family unit very nicely, it does little in terms of supporting the individual engaged in FIFO operations, which by their very nature can have a deleterious effect upon their health and wellbeing and in turn rebound upon the family unit in areas such as a mental health.

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