EVERY day for almost five years, Anita Miller imagines her son Rhys Connor hanging from the ceiling of his room at a Pilbara mine site camp.
Mrs Miller, 50, of Oldbury, doesn’t lay blame for the death of her 25-year-old son at the feet of mining giant Rio Tinto, whose Hope Downs project he was working on for construction contractor OTOC.
But she blames them for being haunted by the daily thoughts of her son hanging for up to six hours after he was found.
“To leave him hanging for that period of time is revolting,” she said.
“There was no respect towards him or us. It quickly became obvious to us that there weren’t any proper procedures in place for dealing with an incident like this and that’s why we have been pushing so hard for change.”
Mrs Miller recalls in painful detail the circumstances of their son’s death on June 25, 2013, which they have had to piece together because of the lack of a workplace investigation.
Companies are not required to undertake a workplace investigation if an incident including a suicide happens in a work camp.
“If you’ve lost a child, you want to be in two worlds. You want to be with (the one you’ve lost) but you also want to be with the rest of your children,” she said.
“You don’t want to leave your family but there’s this yearning that almost makes you suicidal.”
Mrs Miller said she and husband Peter Miller, 62, a concreter and former FIFO worker, keep “grounded” with their four remaining children and 10 grandchildren including Rhys’ son, who is now eight.
They also volunteer and Mr Miller is a member of the working group that consults with UWA’s FIFO research team.
Mrs Miller said changes about the attitude towards mental health were happening but were excruciatingly slow. She said the industry including Rio Tinto had improved some processes but still had a long way to go.
“We’re up against a battle the whole way through to get the industry to change,” she said.
She said stigma towards mental health issues at mine sites needed to stop and people needed to realise that mental health issues could quickly evolve, as they had with Rhys.
Mr Miller said large mining companies were distancing themselves from their responsibilities to workers by having mostly contract workers who were employed by service providers.
He said it was crucial for changes to work and living conditions at mine site and camps to be legislated “to make sure suicides don’t keep happening”.
“It makes me frustrated because it’s taking too long. Even with the code of practice, it’s still going to be years until anything is legislated,” he said.
He said conditions for construction workers were far worse than staff working on production sites.
Rio Tinto managing director Australia Joanne Farrell said: “Mental health is critically important not just for Rio Tinto’s FIFO employees but for our all employees and contractors
“The company has invested in a range of programs to promote positive mental health and wellbeing to our workforce for many years.
“Rio Tinto is actively working to help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide and to ensure we have the required resources to provide the right support.
“We recognise that we, and the wider resources industry, have a very important role to play in helping to breakdown the stigma surrounding mental health.”
“We also recognise the challenges that FIFO presents to our employees and their families, and to Rio Tinto as an employer.
“We continue to work to mitigate these challenges through the provision of effective and comprehensive support services to our employees.
“As a major employer in Western Australia, we understand mental health issues can have a very significant impact on workers, their families, our community and our business.
“That’s why we’re committed to support any action that promotes an open dialogue within the resources sector and society generally about positive mental health and suicide prevention. We also acknowledge that we are on a journey to better understand the complexity of mental wellbeing for our organisation and for the broader community.
“Rio Tinto has been closely involved with the drafting of the fly-in fly-out code of practice and encourages employees and interested members of the public to provide feedback through the Department of Mines Industry Regulation and Safety.
“In addition to providing an Employee Assistance Program, Rio Tinto promotes positive mental health outcomes through an active peer support program (available to contractors also), leader and employee wellbeing training and a number of proactive wellness campaigns aimed at promoting positive mental and physical health for our workforce.
“Lifestyle wellness programmes are also provided at all Rio Tinto accommodation villages and Pilbara communities. These programmes support our people in their efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and include the provision of suitable amenities to encourage strong social engagement; gym and other recreational facilities to promote positive physical and mental wellbeing and access to health promotion/education through dedicated wellness advisers. All of these make a significant contribution to the overall health and wellbeing of our workforce.”
If you are experiencing depression or are suicidal, or know someone who is, help is available. Lifeline: 13 11 14. Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
This piece by Regina Titelius was originally published on ‘PerthNow’ 11 March 2018.