FIFO health woes

by 14 May 2012

What are the health implications for FIFO and DIDO workers?

The Federal Government inquiry has heard from a number of different organisations and individuals, chief amongst them is AMA (Australian Medical Association), which reports an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, mental health issues, deteriorating physical health and resulting factors such as weight gain, fatigue and sleep disorders.

AMA WA President, Professor David Mountain told one hearing there was “high risk behaviour” that comes from being young, cashed up and bored in an isolated areas, whilst head of the AMA’s Queensland branch, Dr. Richard Kidd said that “just being employed as a FIFO worker was enough to put your health at risk”.

It is almost inevitable that workers will navigate towards FIFO operations that offer the best rosters, wages, accommodation arrangements and other conditions. QRC (Queensland Resource Council) chief Michael Roche said workers were always treated well, because they are in such high demand and that the overwhelming point we need to make is that FIFO workers will vote with their feet if they don’t like their accommodation arrangements or other conditions. He said mining villages, or camps, that house the workforce were consistently encouraging healthy eating and exercise and that they promote healthy diet options and many recreational facilities.

From my experience with FIFO operations, I can attest to this being the case and found it amazing the underutilisation of recreational facilities such as gyms and pools; however, it is always necessary to consider the rosters that are in place and what impact this has upon attendance.

Getting the balance right in health and wellbeing services for FIFO workers has never been more critical. The comments by the AMA to the Federal Inquiry may well be the tip of the iceberg as statistical analysis invariably has a delayed response, which may see these issues slingshot over the coming months into quite significant problems.

There is no doubt of the considerable cost and infrastructure savings to be made by mining organisations through not providing residential based operations. However, the utilisation of a FIFO workforce must include a far greater emphasis placed upon the health and overall wellbeing of the workers and indeed, can and should be used as a considerable “point of difference” in not just attracting, but retaining workers.

On 18 April, Fortescue Metals Group reported that on average it costs $100,000 to employ a person who lives in the Pilbara than to employ a person FIFO. It is also worth considering that some media reports indicate that the average wages for FIFO workers sit between $120,000 and $186,000 per year. More recently, the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy reported that it costs a company up to 1.5 time a miner’s annual salary to replace a lost worker, which is a considerable figure given that some operations are experiencing an up to 50%-60% attrition rate.

For even a smaller mining operation of 200-400 employees, these amounts are catastrophic in terms of gaining any sort of a profitability footprint and indeed, must have a knock on effect in terms of training and administration costs, not to mention the loss of corporate knowledge and expertise.

It is quite clear that these sorts of adverse outcomes need to be addressed with a degree of urgency or the sustainability of upcoming projects must be bought into question. Specifically, WA Goldfields are searching for 10,000 new employees, Atlas Iron 1,000 and Hancock Prospecting’s Roy Hill Iron Ore mine needing 10,000 new employees - the need has never been more apparent.

What is the solution?

By and large, the most important component of any health and wellbeing program is actually engaging the workforce with a sense of ownership and personal benefit. Whilst this essentially becomes a cultural issue, it presents management with a significant opportunity to improve productivity and extend the workability of employees.

Risk profiling of any workforce is a relatively easy process, using dedicated health risk assessments (HRA’s), and then designing the health and wellbeing requirements specific to the geographical and demographical footprint of each FIFO operation.

In order for HRA’s to be of any benefit on an organisational level, the ability to delve into data and extract a strong business case and return on investment information must be seen as critical to any successes. If management cannot clearly see a benefit, history shows us that health and wellbeing programs are usually the first off the bus when times get tough.

Ironically, this is the time when these programs are most needed, as maintaining a healthy and productive workforce goes a long way to maintaining the bottom line of any operation.

About the author

Mark Cassidy is the GM, risk & innovation, 2CRisk. For further information visit

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