An inquiry has so far failed to provide any evidence that suggests there is a higher prevalence of mental health issues among fly-in, fly-out workers, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) says.
The inquiry into the mental health of WA’s FIFO workforce was launched three months ago after nine miners took their own lives within the space of a year.
It received 70 submissions, conducted 12 hearings and yesterday the committee released a discussion paper highlighting the issues raised so far.
It found there was a serious stigma associated with mental illness that “pervades” the resources sector and is a “major barrier” to the FIFO workforce seeking help.
The CME’s Bruce Campbell-Fraser said more solid evidence was needed.
“We’d like to see a focus on evidence-based research and data,” he said.
“To date, the parliamentary inquiry is yet to find any evidence or substantiate any claims that the FIFO workforce has a higher prevalence of mental health issues.
“That’s not to diminish the tragic impact suicides have in the community.”
FIFO workers stop taking medication
The inquiry also found there was a perception among FIFO workers they could lose their jobs if they reported mental health issues, and some had stopped taking anti-depressant medication out of fear they would be tested and found out.
And, the committee said separation from family and friends removed a vital mechanism through which workers could seek help for their mental health issues.
Mr Campbell-Fraser said with such a big FIFO workforce, it was likely to reflect issues affecting the community.
“They’ve [the committee] certainly heard some tragic cases and stories but I think it’s important that we focus on the broader mental health issues that affect our community,” he said.
“The FIFO workforce covers about 67,000 people across Western Australia and they will have the same sort of issues and the same sort of problems as the rest of the community.”
The CME said the discussion paper followed an extensive Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry which ran for 18 months.
“That inquiry didn’t find that the FIFO workforce had any mental health issues that were any higher than the rest of the worker population,” Mr Campbell-Fraser said.
“They’ve certainly got some more work to do to ascertain the extent of the problem if it exists within this workforce.”
The committee said it was difficult to gain access to reliable data, even to the point of knowing how many FIFO workers there are in WA.
A ‘disconnect’ by big miners says council
The Pilbara Regional Council, which covers the area where major mines operate with a FIFO workforce, said it hoped the report led to more transparency within the industry.
Council CEO Tony Friday said he was disappointed there seemed to be a level of naivety by big miners, such as Rio Tinto, about the health effects of the FIFO lifestyle.
“I note that the industry submissions show that there’s no particular problem with FIFO work practices but people keep dying so there’s clearly a disconnect there,” he said.
Mr Friday said he was glad the issues have been formally raised, but he would remain cautious until real changes within the industry were made.
“We’ve already been through this exercise to some extent on a national level with the Cancer of the Bush Report a couple of years ago and to date none of those recommendations from that report have been actioned,” he said.
“I’d like to think that some good will come of this activity but history leads me to be a bit cautious.”
In response to Mr Friday’s comments, Rio Tinto released a statement in which it said: “The FIFO lifestyle was not, in itself, the direct cause of suicide or mental ill-health but [Rio Tinto] acknowledges there are risk factors associated with the lifestyle that have the potential to affect the mental health and well-being of workers”.
It said it has a range of programs in place to promote the mental health and well-being for all employees and their families, especially those who work on a FIFO basis or live in remote areas.
In addition, Rio Tinto said it would be reviewing the issues identified in the report to ensure it was doing everything possible to support its workforce in this critically important area.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 28 November 2014.