With many of these developments taking place offshore or in remote and regional locations, fly-in fly-out (FIFO) arrangements have provided access to the skilled employees needed to bring these mega projects to fruition.
Indeed, the natural gas industry now employs one of the largest FIFO workforces in the country.
Featuring unique travel experiences, generous wage schemes and an abundance of development opportunities, the FIFO lifestyle is often recognised as highly rewarding.
However, it certainly isn’t for everybody and presents significant challenges, including the risk of mental illness.
A Western Australia parliamentary inquiry into this important issue is now underway, and while primarily focused on the mining industry, FIFO mental health in hydrocarbons and the construction sector are also under the microscope.
As the national resource employer group, the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) has carried out its own research with the aid of its diverse membership, outlining the findings in a submission made to the inquiry on behalf of the wider resource industry.
Interestingly, the objective data suggests mental illness is no more prevalent in the FIFO workforce than in any other industry, but AMMA Chief Executive Steve Knott says the numbers are of little influence when it comes to mental wellbeing.
“One suicide in the resource sector or broader community is one suicide too many,” Mr Knott says.
“AMMA’s submission incorporates feedback from a broad spectrum of stakeholders across the industry, many of whom work side-by-side with resource employees facing the unique challenges of FIFO lifestyles every day.
In particular, stringent pre-employment procedures – such a psychometric testing and medical exams – assess suitability for the challenges of FIFO arrangements, while open conversations with recruitment officers provide a realistic scope of what candidates can expect as a FIFO employee.
“FIFO work is not for everyone, and resource employers go to great lengths in the recruitment stage to assess people’s suitability to enter this lifestyle,” Mr Knott points out.
“However, it is also critical that the unique factors associated with FIFO work receive due consideration and continue to be managed by employers as part of the ‘whole-of-business’ mental health and workplace safety policies and initiatives.
“Minimising the mental illness risk means implementing proper mitigation strategies that address all risk factors, such as fatigue and drug and alcohol use.”
By and large, company policies addressing these concerns are common, but many resource employers are going a step further.
Mr Knott says strategies encouraging the pursuit of better mental health are emerging in greater numbers, providing support for workers well beyond the recruitment stage and throughout the duration of their employment.
“Many remote site locations feature on-site entertainment and recreational facilities, counselling and support services for financial, relationship and career advice, and regularly present on mental health issues and how workers can ensure they’re watching out for their workmates,” he says.
Mr Knott also points to another trend gaining momentum among resource employers – community engagement tools being used to offer powerful gains to those at risk of developing mental illnesses from the isolation sometimes experienced by FIFO workers.
“Investments in educational facilities, the use of local rental accommodation, community awareness and training programs, and initiatives enabling staff to volunteer locally during work time are some of the ways resource employers contribute to their local communities,” Mr Knott notes.
“Resource industry organisations which invest in the social fabric of the communities in which they operate consistently report improved wellbeing and quality of life, not just for FIFO workers, but for the wider resource workforce.”
At a national level, both resource employers and their FIFO workforces can find additional support for their challenging lifestyles in a growing number of specialist projects specifically targeting mental health and FIFO workers.
In fact, AMMA itself works together with FIFO support network FIFO Families and mental health awareness group beyondblue to tackle this critically important issue.
“AMMA’s joint initiative with Beyond Blue will see the roll-out of resource industry specific mental health awareness programs to mining, oil and gas and construction workplaces across the country,” Mr Knott explains.
“We were also one of the first national organisations to offer our full support to FIFO Families and we continue to give this valuable organisation direct access to our membership through a free-of-charge corporate sponsorship.
“We have also provided support and publicity to Mates in Construction, another mental health awareness initiative kicking goals within our sector.”
Such initiatives make clear the resource industry’s continued commitment to supporting and improving mental well-being for both FIFO employees and the wider resource community.
Awareness on this important issue, however, is never truly exhausted. AMMA, as the resource industry’s leading expert on workforce matters, will continue to work together with the Western Australian Government to tackle the mental health challenge facing Australia’s critically important FIFO workforce.
This article first appeared on ‘Gas Today’ in the Summer 2014/15 Edition.