Rural Sector News Suicide — 21 October 2014

The issue of mental health in FIFO roles has seen a meteoric rise in currency this year, with a number of suicides in WA pointing to the notion that there might be something wrong with the system.

Of course, suicides are only the tip of the iceberg, with many workers suffering symptoms of depression, usually unreported, as a result of their isolation and captivity in camp.

The fact that the Western Australian Legislative Assembly is holding an inquiry into mental health and FIFO employment shows the degree of seriousness with which this problem is and ought to be regarded.

Thursday’s press release from the AMMA had such a lovely title: Mental health initiatives a priority for FIFO employers, AMMA tells government enquiry.

The title could be read as a submission about the initiatives that are becoming a priority for FIFO employers.

Sadly, the submission made to the inquiry, the subject of the AMMA’s press release, seemed to do its utmost to persuade the inquiry that there is no problem with mental health in the mining industry that employers haven’t already attended.

Is it any surprise that an organisation with effectively no empathy for worker’s rights would try to show the mining industry has less problems with mental health than most others?

The hardest thing to swallow in this submission was the use of Worksafe figures outlining the number of mental stress claims made in 2013.

Without wanting to state the obvious, most mining workers would sooner quit before they made a “mental stress claim”.

Masculine stereotypes run thick and strong in the male-dominated mining industry, and the AMMA know that, which is why it is so galling that they would brazenly compare the stress claim statistics for health workers to those for mining workers and effectively say: “Look, there’s hardly any mental stress in the mining industry.”

How is it relevant to compare an industry like health care, where there is a culture of care and openness dominated by female staff, and compare that to a male-dominated industry where a Workcover claim is effectively a career death sentence?

The AMMA is a lobby group. They are a union for mining employers. They represent their members in as one-eyed a fashion as the CFMEU or the MUA.

What kind of backslider would expect us to believe that the AMMA have the best interests of workers at heart?

I’m not so naïve as to think that would ever be the case, but to actually belittle the problem at hand by juking the numbers like that is beyond reproach, especially while mouthing epithets like “one suicide in the resource sector or broader community is one too many.”

I don’t believe the AMMA wants people to get mentally ill or commit suicide in a mining camp, but I don’t believe they are trying to help matters either. They are protecting the interests of their members, the employers who need FIFO workers.

If the AMMA truly wanted to help the issue, rather than simply protect the interests of their members (who, I might add, are not at risk of having FIFO-related mental health issues), they would have mentioned that although some research points to a lack of evidence about increased levels of mental stress in the mining industry, there is a problem with reporting, and that existing statistics may not reveal the true extent of the issue.

If it is largely anecdotal evidence pointing to a problem with the mental health risks faced by FIFO workers, it warrants further investigation, not suppression.

The AMMA has added nothing to the conversation about this problem.

The other disappointment about their submission was the omission of any reference to roster duration, or the mining construction industry. That is where the problem lies.

If all the AMMA want to do is talk about people who are on 2/1 or 2/2 rosters, of course we won’t see much of a problem. There’s plenty of positive feedback about working on family friendly rosters: Workers love it!

But it’s a very different story when you work a 4/1 roster. It grinds you down. Most of us put on a brave face, but it’s not a natural way to live.

Of course FIFO is necessary. The AMMA doesn’t need to persuade anybody of that. We don’t need a history lesson about how it started or how important it is to the industry.

What we do need, as workers, is attention to the fact that when spending only one week out of every five at home for a period longer than six months, most people will get depressed. I will stand by that assumption, based on first- and second- hand experiences: Anecdotal evidence.

What we need to understand is that if you keep a person away from their family for four weeks at a time, over an extended period this isolation will make you depressed. That is not mental illness. That will happen to any pack animal you choose.

Although there are people who really are clinically depressed, there are also people who are depressed because of external stimuli, and that kind of natural depression is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong in your life, and you need to change it. Some people don’t have that opportunity, or the ability. They call it ‘the golden handcuffs’.

Reducing roster duration is a sure way to reduce the incidence of work-related mental health problems in the FIFO industry. It will even help to eliminate some fatigue-related workplace injuries that occur late in the stint.

Any study that fails to examine the relationship between roster length and mental health, any submission to the inquiry that avoids this specific issue, will not be worth the paper it’s printed on.

This article first appeared on ‘Australian Mining’ on 17 October 2014.

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