FIFO Workers And Risky Drinking

A 2018 study commissioned by the Western Australian Mental Health Commission confirmed previous studies about the prevalence of heavy alcohol (and drug) use amongst FIFO workers. 

What constitutes a 'drinking habit'?

Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) identifies that:

  • Regularly drinking more than 2 standard drinks a day on a frequent basis ie daily or at least several times a week, is typically associated with a 'lifetime risky drinking' habit. A 'standard alcohol drink' in Australia is one that contains at least 10gms of pure alcohol.
  • Regularly drinking 5 or more standard drinks a day on a less frequent basis ie once a month, once a fortnight etc, is considered a symptom of a 'single occasion risky drinking' habit.

Both occur with regular frequency within the FIFO workforce.

Needless to say, the NHMRC recommends NOT drinking any more than 2 standard alcoholic drinks a day on a regular basis in order to avoid the considerable health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption!

The 2018 WAMHC Study

The 2018 WAMHC study, which not only conducted its own survey but also reviewed previous research on this issue, studied FIFO workers alongside: 

  • a 'normal' group of workers (non-FIFO workers of a similar population demographic to FIFO workers), and
  • a 'benchmark' group of workers (older, more 'educated' workers, including those in administration and management roles).

What This Research Tells Us About FIFO Workers And Their Drinking Habits….

Significantly, that it's more about quantity than frequency, which, according to the NHMRC's Australian Guidelines To Reduce Health Risks From Drinking Alcohol, is the greater risk!

When it comes to alcohol consumption habits generally, the survey found very little difference in frequency of drinking between FIFO workers and those in the benchmark group. Over 90% of both groups had consumed alcohol during the 12 months prior to the survey (FIFO: 94.3% / Benchmark: 91.1%). In other words, just 8.9% of benchmark workers and 5.7% of FIFO workers either don't drink at all, or hadn't drunk alcohol within the 12 months preceding the survey. For the 'norm' group, it is 16.9%.

More delving into the statistics reveals that 10.9% of FIFO workers indicated they drank daily whilst 57.6% said they indulged on a weekly basis. By comparison, daily drinkers in the benchmark group accounted for 12.9% of their number so actually more than in the FIFO group, and 50.5% of them drank weekly. For the 'norm' group, these figures are 8.1% (daily drinkers) and 43.2% (weekly drinkers).

There is a major difference between these groups though in the quantity of alcohol consumed! Statistically it was revealed that:

  • Nearly three times as many FIFO workers (70.7%) habitually consume more than 2 standard drinks on any given day (risky) compared to their non-FIFO peers (25.9%), AKA the 'normal' group. They also regularly drink more per day than the benchmark group does (43.3%).
  • When FIFO workers drink, almost half of them (41.7%) will down 5+ standard drinks compared to just 18.2% of the benchmark group that does this.
  • Only 22.7% of FIFO workers drink at low risk levels (2 or less drinks per day) compared to 46% of benchmark workers and 57.1% of the 'norm' group.
  • When it comes to 'regular single occasion risky drinking', defined as 5+ drinks at least once a month, more FIFO workers do this (61.6%) compared to the norm group (36.1%) and the benchmark group (38.7%).
  • Just under one half (45.7%) of FIFO workers indicated they'd drunk more than 11 standard drinks in a single sitting within the 12 months prior to the survey. This is 2.8 times as many people compared to the general population of drinking age (16.1%) and twice as many as in the benchmark group (21.9%).

The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT)

Whilst overall the 'number or frequency of drinking occasions' may not differ all that much between FIFO and benchmark group employees, AUDIT​ results for these groups do indicate clear and substantial differences in alcohol related health disorders between the 2 groups that directly correlate with the AMOUNT of alcohol consumed. FIFO workers for instance consistently returned scores that put them in the high risk and hazardous categories for these health issues, whilst those in the benchmark group were in the low risk category. This is despite relatively similar drinking frequency patterns between the 2 groups.

Health and alcohol connections in FIFO workers

Literature, and the NMHRC study, indicate that within the FIFO community there are distinct correlations between increased alcohol consumption / tobacco smoking / drug use, and poorer mental health and wellbeing. Notably, FIFO workers who experience higher levels of depression and anxiety are consistently found to be more prone to resort to alcohol (and drugs) as a coping mechanism. Conversely, lower alcohol consumption (like that associated with the benchmark group) is linked to a better sense of wellbeing with flow on effects for better mental health and general wellbeing.

The NMHRC survey found that these correlations were not present in the benchmark group, indicating that FIFO workers are more likely to be subjected to conditions that lead to these types of health problems. They are also statistically more likely to be from demographic groups (age, gender, education/qualifications, career) linked to problems like higher suicide rates and depression within the general population than those in the benchmark group.

Alcohol related workplace problems for FIFO workers

Days Off

It was noted that 3.2% of FIFO workers participating in the survey had missed at least one day of work due to alcohol use. Some had missed up to 28 days, which is almost 1 day a fortnight over the course of a year! This percentile dropped to 1.7% for the benchmark group, with a maximum of only 5 days reported.

Injuries

Some 16.8% of the FIFO workers surveyed reported having injured themselves or someone else due to their drinking, particularly after a heavy single occasion drinking session. This is twice the number of benchmark workers who reported having had similar incidents (8%) and the 'norm' group (9%). To avoid this, the NHMRC recommends drinking no more than 4 standard alcoholic drinks on a single occasion drinking session.

Alcohol consumption patterns and roster swings

Studies have also identified patterns in alcohol consumption amongst FIFO workers, notably linked to some types of roster swings. More workers on 14/7 rosters for example have a 'drinking spike' (2 – 3 drinks) at the mid-point of their time on site than do workers on other roster swings. Survey results further indicate a tendency for workers in this group to have 2 – 3 drinks at the start of their R and R, then 3 – 4 drinks just prior to returning to site.

FIFO workers on 8/6 rosters, the other common roster swing, as a group tend not to have this drinking spike in the middle of their on-site roster but instead remain steady at around 1 drink across their time at work. However, (again, these are group tendencies and individual behaviours will obviously vary) they do begin to increase their intake (1 – 2 drinks) whilst preparing to go home, and then hit 3 – 4 drinks when they start their R and R compared to the 14/7 group's average of 2 – 3 drinks at this point**. Workers on both types of rosters (statistically speaking) tend to consume 3 – 4 drinks just prior to returning to site.

**NB: These particular statistics don't specify whether this level of alcohol consumption continues across the R and R period as they only record consumption at set points during the entire roster cycle (start, mid-point, transition to home, start of R and R, and transition to site).

How do roster cycles contribute to these alcohol consumption patterns?

Those on a 14/7 roster cycle very often work a week of day shifts, followed by a week of night shifts, before going home on R and R for 7 days. The spike in drinking reported at the mid-point in this roster cycle clearly coincides with the change over from day to night shift. Are these workers 'plucking up courage' for night duty or are they simply taking advantage of the additional 'drinking time' in between shift changeovers! 

According to the findings of this report (p 205), FIFO workers who work a 14/7 rotating day/night shift are more prone to a range of mental health issues, notably depression and anxiety, than those on other shifts, especially the 8/6. FIFO workers on an 8/6 roster usually work the same shift for the entire roster cycle, which is far less psychologically and physically disruptive.

Other factors that have been linked to on-site alcohol consumption levels in FIFO workers include:

  • Job satisfaction – those workers who enjoy their jobs and have taken ownership of the lifestyle tend to drink less alcohol whilst those who find the FIFO lifestyle with its transitions to and from work challenging mentally and emotionally are more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism
  • Whether or not workers feel they have some autonomy and control over their free time whilst on site – the more they feel they do, the lower their level of alcohol consumption tends to be
  • Good personal relationships with family, friends and work mates – when these are happy and satisfying research shows less alcohol tends to be consumed
  • A willingness to utilise available support avenues is linked to lower alcohol consumption
  • Dry sites
  • Company regulations around blood alcohol levels during working hours ie blow-zero requirement
  • Limited opportunities for drinking in wet messes whilst on night shift
  • Whether or not the wet mess is the only place workers can enjoy social interaction

The NMHRC survey also found that nearly one quarter (23%) of FIFO workers said someone close to them (friend, relative, health care worker, doctor) had expressed concerns about their drinking. For the benchmark group, it was 15.3% and for the normal group 10.2%.​  

Whilst the effects of the FIFO lifestyle on those who do this work is a relatively young field of research, there is plenty of well-established documentation around the effects of alcohol on mental health generally.  So much so that services like Beyond Blue and Mensline have been set up specifically to help those affected by these, and other, issues. 
​Managing A FIFO Workforce

Related Posts

 

Comments

No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Guest
Wednesday, 25 November 2020
If you'd like to register, please fill in the username, password and name fields.