Can you make 14, 12-hour consecutive shifts in a hot, dirty and isolated work environment attractive? How about a six-figure salary, meals, accommodation and every third week off with a plane ticket home? It’s a start, but what effects will such a demanding schedule have on a worker’s health and personal relationships?

FIFO work schedules

Fly-in and fly-out (FIFO) work schedules became popular in the 1990s as a way of attracting skilled workers to the industry, with over 40 mining operations Australia wide (majority in Western Australia and Queensland) adopting the idea.

A cost effective option for mining organisations in comparison to establishing and maintaining remote residential communities for their employees, FIFO employment is often promoted as a way of improving the quality of life of employees by allowing the freedom to live in urban communities rich in culture and resources for their families.

There is much controversy over who wins and loses with FIFO arrangements. Regional governments air concerns on the impact to regional communities. Workers utilise local infrastructure whilst on site, but contribute little to local community life. Perhaps also, the opportunity of maintaining work in the mines with an ability to live in urban areas is contributing to rural population decline.

There is also the notion of getting ‘sucked in’ to a FIFO lifestyle. Individuals entering these projects with a short-term plan of working hard, making good money and then moving on become accustomed to living within inflated salary ranges and can find it difficult to get out.
Choosing instead to tolerate isolated working conditions in order to meet their financial obligations, an idea referred to as the ‘golden hand-cuffs’ in a report in The Australian newspaper. What are the costs of being trapped in a work environment you do not wish to remain? How does that dissatisfaction translate to mental wellbeing? What are the impacts on relationships and physical health of demanding work, separation from family and social networks, increasing fatigue and emotional drain?

The health status of workers

The health and wellbeing of workers has challenged the Australian mining industry for almost 70 years, yet it has never found itself in such an exciting position; poised at the brink
of becoming a true leader in promoting a healthy workplace.

Historically, health and lifestyle consequences range from physical to emotional and social. Strains on interpersonal relationships may be the most obvious downside of FIFO work. Although such work environments may bring employees closer, these relationships cannot replace the interactions with friends and family outside of the workplace.

A 2005 comprehensive study investigating men’s health in mining workers from 29 sites in WA found that two-thirds of the workers felt moderate or high levels of dissatisfaction with the time available for social and domestic activities. Twenty-three percent strongly agreed that their work had a negative effect on their families. Establishing equilibrium between work and home life is a modern challenge faced by most workers, but it is amplified when you spend more days living away from home than in own your home.

Studies show sleep disturbances, substance abuse (including alcohol) and chronic fatigue affect as many as two-thirds of FIFO workers. Employees working night shifts or shifts
longer than 12-hours report higher rates of fatigue, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychological distress.

Future progress

To the mining industry’s credit, since 2005 there has been an encouraging shift to manage employee fatigue by shortening longer shift cycles. In 2006, the Council for Minerals and Energy in Western Australia reported a rise in the proportion of companies moving to eight-hour shifts, and no companies using shifts longer than 13-hours. These organisations can expect significant returns via improved employee productivity and work satisfaction.

Could these gains in productivity and work balance be further enhanced by promoting better physical health and lifestyle behaviours?

Improving the health, focus and vitality of a mining workforce has a huge potential to impact the sustainability of one of Australia’s biggest economical export sectors. It has been demonstrated that men involved in FIFO work are clearly able to identify aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including consumption of a healthy diet, regular physical activity, relaxation and good-quality sleep. However, few maintain such practices in their own lives, citing perceived lack of time, fatigue and stress as barriers.

There is emerging evidence that elite workplace health promotion companies are capable of driving widespread improvements of lifestyle behaviours across many industries. Due to advances in communication technology and streamlining of contact modalities, it is now possible to actively engage a working population, empowering and nurturing them through the process of modifying their health and lifestyle.

Evidence shows us that single, stand-alone awareness programs, training or health assessments do not provide long-term or sustainable improvements to health or
safety behaviours.

Comprehensive programs that foster an environment which facilitates sustained positive change and continually reinforces healthy choices have been shown to be most effective.

FIFO operations provide a unique opportunity to address a largely male-dominated workforce historically challenged at maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing.

These settings inherently create a captive audience allowing unprecedented access while at work and at camp. As new projects break ground, organisations should consider taking this opportunity to help develop a healthier, more productive, more satisfied and ultimately more sustainable workforce in order to optimise their human assets.

Isn’t it time we broadened our scope and definition of health and safety?

Let health and safety not merely mean absence of accident and disease, but rather optimal vitality and wellbeing. Through education, encouragement and follow-up we can empower workers with the knowledge and the means to improve their lifestyle behaviours, making them healthier, happier, safer and more productive.

Health by Design are leaders in designing and implementing effective workplace health, injury prevention, and high performance programs. With a focus on working with clients to create engaging programs which successfully help employees change their behaviour, we are well placed to provide programs which will positively impact a business’ workforce costs and performance outcomes. Contact us to learn about how Health by Design’s award winning programs may be able to help you and your team.