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?
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.