​Western Australia's New Mental Health Code For FIFO Workers

The world's biggest FIFO economy has introduced a new code that legislates the responsibilities of mining and construction companies towards the workplace mental health of their FIFO employees. The West Australian government initiative is a first for Australia, and requires mining and construction companies to provide mentally healthy workplaces for their FIFO workforce. 

The move comes after years of concern about the rising incidents of mental health problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide, amongst these workers. These concerns have led to several inquiries, including a 2015 report by the Legislative Assembly Education and Health Standing Committee that provided a number of recommendations for dealing with the problem. In all cases, the inquiries have found that there is cause for considerable concern about the mental health of some of these workers, concerns that have been directly linked to aspects of the FIFO workplace. Of particular note are the consistent findings that FIFO workers experience higher than normal levels of 'psychological distress' than other sectors of the workforce.

The latest research into the issue, conducted by Curtin University, interviewed 3000 FIFO workers, 400 of their partners, and over 300 ex FIFO workers. The researchers found that amongst the most common issues causing 'psychological distress' for FIFO employees are problems with the site itself, with the team these employees are part of, or with the company. These included things like:

  • Rosters – length, long work hours, excessive consecutive days worked, constant shift rotations from day to night shifts
  • Inadequate support - unsupportive supervisors and co-workers, lack of adequate training or information for the job at hand, inadequate resources and/or equipment for the job
  • Lack of clarity about the job
  • Extreme weather and environmental conditions – heat, cold, noise, air quality, natural disasters (fires, flooding, cyclones)
  • Disrupted sleep routines, leaving employees unable to get enough quality sleep to cope with the stresses and demands of the job (no noise curfews, poorly scheduled cleaning and maintenance programs, inadequate window coverings for daytime sleeping, uncomfortable bedding, hot and humid or very cold temperatures etc)
  • Fatigue – caused by inadequate sleep, extended work hours, certain medical conditions
  • Remote and isolated work where access to communication with family and friends, or support services, is difficult. These work environments also restrict opportunities to 'get away' from the work environment or interact with a range of different people. They may involve long tiring commute times with different types of transport and a day or more of travel and overnight accommodation, crossing different time zones, and so on.
  • Exposure to inappropriate behaviours such as bullying (either exposure to, or witnessing it), violence, harassment, aggression etc
  • Not being able to control or have a say in certain aspects of the job ie lack of autonomy, highly regulated jobs with no room for worker input, no involvement in the decision making process about how the work should be done, not able to refuse to work with aggressive people, lack of say in accommodation arrangements.
  • Health problems – injuries, illness, lack of exercise due to long work hours, lack of amenities etc, poor nutrition caused by lack of healthy food choices, inadequate nutritional information, poor portion control.
  • Drug and alcohol use.

Aims of the code

The aim of the code is to ensure that companies who employ FIFO workers take steps to implement risk management polices for mental health issues, the same as they would for physical hazards and workplace safety.   These policies should identify, address, and manage risk and hazard elements in their FIFO workplaces that contribute to mental health issues. To facilitate this, the code 'provides guidance' to assist companies:
  • Develop risk management processes that identify psychosocial risk factors and hazards
  • Manage existing mental health issues in their workplace
  • Avoid aggravating any existing mental issues
  • Work towards 'positive mental health outcomes' for their workers

As per the code, criteria that companies need to address in ensuring a mentally healthy work environment include:

  • Provision of a working environment in which good health and well being are promoted – this means identifying and promoting healthy positive work practices that support employee health (mental and physical) and well-being.
  • Developing and applying risk management procedures that build a mentally healthy working environment and thus avoid or reduce the harm that psychosocial hazards and risk factors cause.
  • Developing and ensuring that appropriate response strategies are in place to help workers should there be any concerns around psychosocial hazard and risk factor exposure, and/or work related stress. Early intervention and provision of support for coping strategies is vital when employees begin to show signs of mental distress.
  • Development and provision of a supportive environment to assist recovery – this includes providing access to health management and other services that can assist workers deal with, and recover from, mental health issues. Part of providing a mentally healthy workplace is also understanding that not all mental health issues that present in the workplace are workplace related, but being prepared to assist the employee regardless.

Some solutions presented by the code for addressing the most obvious causes of mental health issues amongst FIFO workers are:

  • Improving work and travel arrangements include adoption of rosters that provide enough time for employees to get adequate rest and recreation, and designing roster rotations to allow for better Arcadian or body clock adjustments
  • Improving accommodation arrangements – allocating permanent rooms, ensuring minimal sleep disturbance, providing black out curtains, sound proofing, air conditioning, comfortable beds etc.
  • To minimise sleep disturbance as far as practicable, sleeping quarters should be located away from communal areas, with comfortable beds, soundproofing, air conditioning and blackout curtains.
  • Implementing work designs that make jobs more interesting for employees ie job rotation, more autonomy, increased variety, better utilisation of skills, more feedback.
  • Improving communications – providing access to reliable communication infrastructures, allowing employees to interact with home networks, being flexible (within reason) about workers contacting family and friends during the working day, providing alternative and reliable communication options in areas where mobile coverage is limited.

The code also sets out ways of controlling the identified risks through a hierarchy of control, outlines mechanisms for better monitoring and review, provides strategies for effective communication and consultation, and methods for adequate responding to reports. It applies to all West Australian workplaces that have FIFO workers – mining and exploration (minerals and petroleum), and construction as well as support services for these industries (drilling companies, facilities management and so on).

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