FIFO – Life In A Mining Camp

FIFO – for most people it generally brings to mind machinery operators, plant workers and tradies flying backwards and forwards between their remote or overseas place of work and their homes in metropolitan areas. However, a fair percentage of FIFO workers are also executives and middle management. Some of them choose the FIFO lifestyle whilst others may not have too many other available options.

Life in a mining camp as a FIFO employee isn't all bad. Most modern camps have access to facilities like a gym, swimming pool and various other sporting facilities. There is Internet connection available along with PayTV and your accommodation is paid for, as is your food. The dongas on the whole are reasonably comfortable, albeit basic, and usually air-conditioned / heated as required. They're kept clean for you and some sites also provide a laundry service. Mining companies on the whole do recognise that if they look after their employees well, they're far more likely to retain them.

The most obvious advantage of FIFO work is that it's well paid. Extremely well paid in many cases, particularly if you work directly for the mining company. Some FIFO positions pay up to 60% more than a city-based employee doing the same type of job. Additionally, most of your living expenses whilst you're onsite are paid for – accommodation, travel and meals. This makes it a lot easier to pay off the mortgage on your home back in suburbia, support your family comfortably and generally pay for a quality lifestyle.

If you have the right skills to do the job, most mining companies are willing to fly you onsite from wherever you choose to live. The advantage of this is that you can continue to live where you want to. Even if you change employers, you generally don't have to move your family or your home base. That means less disruption for your family, particularly your children's education and if your spouse or partner works, their job.

FIFO also means you can keep your work and home lives completely separate. Most FIFO rosters allow for extended time at home in return for extended time spent onsite. This, combined with the good pay, can allow FIFO workers to develop a lifestyle that may not be possible if working an ordinary 5-day week.

The Not So Attractive Aspects Of Life In A Mining Camp

On the flip side, life in a mining camp also means you're generally working long hours in what may be trying conditions. Depending on where the camp is in the world, you could be dealing with extreme temperatures, dust, rain, snow, humidity, harsh remote countryside and insect pests to name a few.

Constantly adjusting to shift work and coming off shift work is also hard on people. It messes with our circadian rhythm. This is a 24-hour biological clock we all have. During those 24 hours our bodies are programmed to do certain things at certain times. For example, we're naturally programmed to wind down when light fades – our eyes send a message to this effect to a control centre in our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN controls our biological clock. The SCN, in response to the message from our eyes, signals the pineal gland to being producing melatonin. 

Melatonin is often referred to as the sleep hormone for very good reason - it sends signals to other parts of our body that it's time to start winding down for the day. There are many functions that are programmed to take place in our bodies whilst we're asleep (cellular repair being one of these) and many that are also programmed to stop during that time. Our body temperature, cognitive function, gastrointestinal system and even some of our hormones are all affected by our biological clock. 

Conversely, when our eyes register an increase in light, the SCN instructs the pineal gland to stop melatonin production and we begin to wake up. During daylight hours, or when we're exposed to bright blue light, the pineal gland produces no melatonin at all.

All of this is very significant for shift workers who work night shifts because their bodies are expected to do the reverse of what we're designed to do, which is sleep at night and be awake during the day. The problem is compounded when shift workers change shifts or cease shift work for a short time, as is the case with FIFO workers. Studies​ have shown that not only does this adversely impact on their health generally but can also be an OH and S risk.

Accommodation in mining camps, whilst adequate and generally comfortable, is nevertheless basic. There are few of the creature comforts you get living at home and this can be a problem for some people. Another issue that faces people living in mining camps is the stress of living away from family and friends for long periods of time. Some people can cope with this, others can't so well and it leads to depression and mental health issues. FIFO workers have a higher than average suicide rate, to the point where there have been government enquiries into the problem. 

Due to their isolation, mining camps can be quite constrictive. Even when you're off duty, there usually isn't anywhere you can go to get away from the place. The camps are also very routine, even with all the recreational facilities available.

Ultimately living in a mining camp isn't for everyone and sometimes not even the lure of a good salary can overcome that. But for others, it can be the opportunity of a life time and a chance to earn a good salary before moving on to bigger and better things. 

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Tuesday, 20 April 2021
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