CHANGES to occupational health and safety (OH&S) laws which would extend workplace safety regulations to all work camps have been mooted by a committee of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly.
The Education and Health Standing Committee report, titled The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health, also called for a code of practice for fly-in, fly out (FIFO) work arrangements to ensure that the main factors that impact negatively on workers’ mental health are addressed.
“The Committee would like to see action that modifies the system of work to take into account the mental health of workers, rather than attempting to profile or screen for workers who are ‘tough enough’ to withstand the challenges of FIFO,” the report said.
“Ensuring the better integration of FIFO accommodation camps into local communities and improved occupational safety and health coverage of the camps will improve mental health and wellbeing, productivity and ultimately the sustainability of the system.”
The report made a series of recommendations for the Code of Practice, which it said should be developed by the Department and Minister for Mines and Petroleum in partnership with Western Australia’s Mental Health Commission.
Such a code should factor into consideration the impact of fatigue, bullying and workplace culture – aiming to develop one that was supportive of good mental health and wellbeing, the report said.
Among the key recommendations is that the code encourage the adoption of even-time rosters, or one of eight days on, six days off.
“Rosters of greater compression than this can result in fatigue and pose significant risks to workers’ mental health and wellbeing, and should be reduced,” the report said.
The implementation of peer-based support programs such as Mates in Construction, established after a major inquiry into suicide among construction workers in 2008, was also recommended.
“An argument is frequently made that FIFO construction workers tolerate working a higher compression roster [ie four weeks on, one week off] because of the short time periods of construction projects,” the report said.
“It is important to note that construction workers often move from one construction project to another and are thus continually exposed to high compression rosters.”
The use of motelling practices – where a worker’s room is used by another person when that worker is not on site – should be minimised, if not abandoned, the report found.
“The committee does not accept that principal companies are unable to influence work conditions such as roster compressions or modelling procedures within their agreements with contractor companies,” the report said.
Currently, workers residing in fly-in, fly out (FIFO) worker accommodation facilities are not covered by existing OH&S provisions for workplaces when off shift under current laws.
The report recommended that this change, saying that FIFO accommodation was “qualitatively different to private accommodation, and is similar to a workplace.”
“The Committee finds that the current legislative change process should bring the residential use of the accommodation facilities under the purview of the Mines Safety and Health provisions.”
“Changes to the law should ensure that a FIFO worker occupying or residing in FIFO accommodation is not exposed to risks to health and safety, including risks to mental health,” the report said.
Proposed changes would also require that all deaths, suicides and attempted suicides be reported to the Department of Mines and Petroleum, regardless of the location of the project or whether the death or attempt was considered to be work related.
Data from the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed that one in five men aged between 25 and 44 will experience a mental health disorder in any 12 month period, while the demographic most at risk of suicide is males aged between 15 and 44.
However, the report also said that a person did not need to be suffering from a diagnosable mental illness in order to consider suicide.
The report was released after a survey of 629 Western Australian FIFO workers conducted by Edith Cowan University (ECU) found that 28 per cent exhibited significant signs of depression, compared to just 13% of the general population.
FIFO workers also exhibited higher rates of stress and anxiety than the general population and non-FIFO mining workers who live in remote and rural areas, the researchers, led by Philippa Vojnovic, found.
Ms Vojnovic said the study also identified certain groups within the FIFO sector that were particularly at risk of depression.
“Younger workers, aged between 18 and 29 were twice as likely to suffer from depression as their older colleagues. Additionally, workers with a university degree were half as likely to experience depression,” she said.
The findings showed the need for strong support systems at remote sites, Ms Vojnovic said.
“This isn’t about blaming resource companies, it’s about helping people who are struggling in silence.”