We need to ask tougher questions about FIFO

On the recommendation of one of my subscribers I am currently listening to a podcast called Food For Thought which includes a discussion on the mental health issues associated with the Fly-In -Fly-Out (FIFO) work structure.  This article is being written as I listen to the podcast so follows the threads as spoken.

Various major Australian inquiries have been held into the occupational health and safety of FIFO workers for the mining sector. The potential psychological harm of FIFO is indisputable so why aren’t we asking the tough questions and thinking about the harm that we are allowing to occur?

Source: istockphoto

Dani Tamati is asked by the interviewer, James Bryden, to talk about the suicide of her FIFO working boyfriend several months after they broke up. My initial response was like trying to assess the cause of lung cancer in a smoker, the ending of a relationship can be very stressful so how relevant was the work structure to her boyfriend’s decision?

Tamati talks about the disruption that the FIFO structure imposes on families as much as it does on workers and discusses how it is important to match people to the FIFO structure when recruiting them.  In many ways this process is “making the best of a bad situation”, without addressing the bad situation.  That may not be the role of the recruiter, but it is part of the role of the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional, government policy makers and the employers.

My contention is that FIFO is fundamentally flawed as it sacrifices the mental health of workers and increases the psychosocial pressures on the family back home.  The business advantages are that remote workplaces can employ workers without the additional, traditional expenditure of building towns and infrastructure.  The continuing low-cost of air travel has allowed FIFO to be cost-effective, if the mental health context of OHS and families is not counted.

Tamati, who is currently married to a FIFO mine worker and whose children are likely to follow that path, acknowledges that FIFO suits come people but not others and clearly this perspective allows her to recruit workers who are suited to this work structure.  But the consequences of those not able to cope with FIFO are so awful and life-changing that we should be questioning the viability of the model.  Any other organisational or industry structure that leads to suicides would be substantially restructured with a broadened range of services provided to workers and families.

“As Far As Is Socially Practicable”

Readers and subscribers would know that I continue to be bothered by the determination of OHS compliance through what is “as far as is reasonably practicable”.  Few business owners understand this compliance level and even fewer are comfortable with it, but it is now a fundamental element of Australian workplace health and safety law.

The continuation of the FIFO workplace structure is an example of a harmful structure that can be justified as being as far as is reasonably practicable on the grounds of the availability of suitably skilled labour, the remoteness of the workplace, shift-work structures and a whole range of business and economic factors.  But can FIFO be justified as being as far as is socially practicable?  I don’t believe FIFO can be justified if the social and mental health impacts are incorporated in the determination of practicability, however I am unaware of any research to substantiate my belief.

Many of the mining companies operating FIFO have strong commitments to their OHS responsibilities and can demonstrate their OHS compliance but not necessarily as far as is socially practicable.  Business viability is often calculated in narrow terms without considering the lifespan of a project and without calculating the social context of its operations.  This is largely because shareholders are looking for increased financial returns on their investments.  They are usually not overly concerned with how that return is achieved, as can be seen by continuing investment in products and services that harm people.

Applying CSR to our own behaviour

Ethical investment has existed for decades and has primarily addressed environmental concerns and some of the morality underpinning business decisions but workplace health and safety has largely been ignored and is largely absent from considerations of “labour relations”..  Corporate Social Responsibility has had some success but almost entirely by looking at others.  How would those companies espousing their CSR credentials overseas handle those elements being applied to their own local production?  I would ask this question of Australia’s mining sector given the evidence that the FIFO structure contributes to poor mental health of some workers, leading some to suicide, and increases psychosocial stressors on families.

Occupational health and safety obligations originated within the workplace which, traditionally, had clear boundaries around which responsibilities could be switched on and off.  Those boundaries no longer exist, except in the minds of those seeking to manage OHS liabilities rather than improve the health and safety of their workers and OHS includes a much broader social responsibility than in the past.  It is this contemporary reality, this (uncapitalised) corporate social responsibility, that should have mining companies reassessing the viability and morality of FIFO work structures.

I applaud people like Dani Tamati who continue to strive to improve the mental health of workers in a difficult work structure.  However, we should also be determining the true cost of that work – the cost on the individual, the cost on the family and the long-term cost on society and government services.

We are told continually that there is an increase in the number of mental health problems in workplaces and society.  Just perhaps our tolerance of work structures, like FIFO, is contributing to this trend.  But no one seems to be researching these connections, perhaps because the potential shame of exploiting the mental health of our citizens would be unbearable.

Kevin Jones

2 thoughts on “We need to ask tougher questions about FIFO”

  1. Hi Kev.

    I feel that one of the conclusions you arrive at in this article – that the FIFO organisational or industry structure leads (leads??!!) to suicide – draws a very long bow.

    I’ll explain where my stance comes from. I have been engaged in FIFO and, to a lesser extent, DIDO within the Australian construction industry for close to 20 years. Most projects (some exceptions do exist) took place in areas or locations geographically removed from major population centres.

    In all but one case, those projects elected to import their workforce; mainly c/- FIFO. (The sole exception was a project in Newcastle. That project’s unique structure allowed project partners and participants to draw on local labour expertise).

    Throughout that there has, and continues to be, some consistent denominators. (1) The FIFO/DIDO construction workforce is overwhelmingly male. I don’t know exact figures, but believe the overall gender split would lie somewhere in the 80% male-20% female / 90%-10% ballpark. (And I’d be willing to bet large that the ratio of those ‘on the tools’ would be hovering around the 90/10 split). Also, (2), I believe the FIFO/DIDO construction workforces age distribution would be significantly skewed to the right – so, displaying a disproportionately higher number of men in the first half of their careers. (If anybody has exact figures to support (or, refute) those assertions, welcome to the discussion).

    In all of this, when I consider those two factors and the number of FIFO/DIDO personnel who do, tragically, chose to take their own lives, I ask: if we took any cluster of predominantly young(ish) Westernised men, anywhere in Australia, what proportion of that (admittedly very unusual) population sample would be likely to consider suicide, or act on those thoughts? Would the answer be all that far removed from the percentage we see who happen to work FIFO/DIDO?

    If the answer was ‘no’, then why conclude that it is the FIFO organisational or industry structure that is LEADING to suicide? Sure, it may be a contributor – working FIFO/DIDO may be the tipping point – but to assert that it leads to suicide could be one of those tougher questions about FIFO your article kicked things off with.

    1. Tony, FIFO can lead to suicide as many cases have shown.

      But in response to your comments I have had another look at one of the sources of information for the article, the WA Government’s Final Report into “The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health”. The report supports your contention that the suicide rate for young FIFO workers is not greatly different from that of the non-FIFO worker:

      “Finding 3 Page 16
      Given the difficulties of determining a reliable figure for FIFO suicide rates, and of determining a suitable state‐wide rate, the Committee maintains it is not helpful to draw conclusions that the FIFO suicide rate is no higher than the general community.

      Finding 4 Page 19
      Research suggests that the prevalence rate of mental health problems amongst the FIFO workforce could be approximately 30 per cent, significantly higher than the national average of 20 per cent.” (page ix)

      In some ways FIFO work structures are unhealthy and it seems that we have reached a point where we accept recruitment and psychologically profiling FIFO workers as managing the risks as far as is reasonably practicable. I am not sure that is the case. It might have been once but it might not be now. That practicability needs to be reassessed in light of the improved state of knowledge of mental health risks of FIFO workers. That state of knowledge will improve again over time and another review ill be needed. that is the nature of safety management and continual improvement.

      That is one of the reasons why my article is about the need for tough questions. Once a level of reasonably practicable is achieved we accept that as the reality, the norm that cannot be questioned, but in OHS all things need to be questioned so that they can be verified or improved.

      I don’t dispute your demographics and would suggest that we question whether we should be recruiting that demographic for the type of work we expect of them. My contention in the article is that we can continue with that demographic but could reduce the risk of mental health problems by going Not accepting that the FIFO work structure is the only option.

      Greatly appreciate your comment, Tony.

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