How to win the mining game

ECU Daily, 22/05/2015

In one of the world’s richest states, West Australian workers struggle with mental health issues, adding to the list of what it means to be an ‘Aussie battler’. With a seemingly endless battle between companies, unions and politicians, workers and their families are desperate for answers.

In the earliest days of the WA gold rush, over 120 years ago, towns and communities were established to host basic living needs for workers.

It was a time when would-be prospectors travelled to town, dug for gold, got paid and went home to their families marginally better off than before.

 

This is the way of life that Western Australian’s still live by to this day, only on a scale larger than anyone could have ever predicted, especially in the late 1800’s.

The main difference between now and then is that WA is exporting commodities such alumina, sand, iron ore, nickel, petroleum and uranium at extraordinarily high rates.

In fact, in 2014 WA mines sent more than $113 billion worth of minerals and petroleum overseas; almost $310 million per day (Government of Western Australia Department of Mines and Petroleum, 2014).

WA’s iron ore market accounted for 57 per cent of those exports (Government of Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum, 2014). Nearly 80 per cent of WA’s Iron Ore comes from WA’s Pilbara region (Geoscience Australia, 2012), which has been described by some geologists as, “iron country” (Geoscience Australia, 2010).

One city at the heart of the WA mining industry is Karratha.

Karratha, inaugurated as the City of Karratha (COK) in July 2014, is one of the original iron ore mining boomtowns in the country and is now the bustling centre of mining nestled in the WA Pilbara region.

In 2013, Karratha was named the sixth largest local economy in the country, producing 6 per cent of Australia’s total gross domestic product (COK, 2015).

Karratha is a host to a complex web of residential statuses. Some are based in the COK and drive out to work on mining or construction projects for days or weeks at a time; this is known as DIDO work (Drive-In Drive-Out).

Others are based further away; in Perth, the eastern states or even overseas. These are the people who fly-in and fly-out (FIFO) as per their respective rosters.

Living conditions for these men and women can be tough depending on how much money a company allocates to accommodation.

High-rise apartment buildings, hotels, motels, rooms above pubs, flats, dongas, share houses and caravan parks are some examples of where companies station their workers. In other words, anywhere they can fit them.

Some employers make use of ‘bunk-bedding’ to make room for more employees. Back to back sleeping arrangements are also prevalent; while one person is working their shift, someone will be sleeping in your bed, and vice versa.

Karratha and its surroundings is just one example of what is happening in and around mining towns and communities all over Australia.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) State Secretary Steve McCartney says some of the time; people don’t necessarily know what they’re getting into when it comes to these work conditions.

“If you’re doing it for the first time, you don’t really know what’s going to happen… you’ve got an idea, but you don’t really know,” he said.

Mr McCartney recommended that worker use their ‘probation period’ to figure out whether this sort of work is for them, or whether they would be better off taking their skills elsewhere.

Due to the worsening conditions people are being placed in and following a spate of suicides across worksites countrywide, on the 20th of August the WA Parliament began an inquiry into the mental health impacts of FIFO work arrangements.

Mr McCartney says the AMWU had been pleading for an inquiry like this for years.

“We have been campaigning for an inquiry for about 8 years. This is one step in our campaign, but it took 8 years to get that,” he said.

“The other steps have been educating our members, and educating bosses… We got our members educated about (mental health issues), so they talked about it more, so we could take it to the bosses to try and explain that they have a problem.”

Mr McCartney says the AMWU’s efforts to raise the issue of mental health problems in FIFO work arrangements was ignored by employers because they didn’t want another problem to deal with.

“They have been side-stepping these issues for the last 20 years that I know of,” he stated.

 

Since the inquiry began, there have been over 80 written submissions from Unions, Government departments, not for profit agencies, university researchers, large companies who deal in the industry and mental health groups, just to name some.

WA shadow Health Minister Roger Cook says this inquiry is well overdue.

“The inquiry was instigated following announcements from Mark McGowan that (the WA Labor party) had been concerned for some time about the mental health impacts of the whole FIFO arrangement,” he said.

“One of the particular issues we are concerned about is the sense of isolation and despair which sometimes makes itself felt when people are forced into a FIFO arrangement.”

Mr Cook also says that it is important as members of Parliament that he and his colleagues follow through with the inquiry to insure that politicians are doing everything they can to protect workers and understand all the mental health implications that result from these work arrangements.

Some people find themselves asking why? Why are the mental health conditions worsening when the reward factor is so high? According to Mining Australia International, the average salary in the whole Australian mining industry is over $100,000 per annum (Mining Australia International, n.d.).

In a submission from the Mental Illness Fellowship of WA, they explain that no amount of money is enough to keep mental health issues at bay. Illustrated by a list of more than 50 contributing factors that may lead to mental illness and suicide among FIFO/DIDO workers (Mental Illness Fellowship of WA).

Some of the key factors included are, separation from family, transitioning from a residential community to be confined to a work community, drug and alcohol risks associated with high income, social isolation, relationship challenges, limited knowledge and coping strategies on how to maintain mental health.

Money can’t buy you out of isolation, it can’t buy your family and community relationships back, and it certainly can’t buy you a positive mental wellbeing.

Many of these stressors contribute to the development of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety which, in certain situations can lead to suicide or self-mutilation (Jorm & Reavley, 2013).

Research shows that in addition to living with these illnesses people also have to cope with the stigma and discrimination that is associated with them. This can in turn lead to adverse effects such as, delayed help seeking and difficulties with relationships (Jorm & Reavley, 2013).

The ‘toughen up princess’ mentality is still something that plagues these work sites to this day. In a general sense, many veteran FIFO workers would have gotten through the early days of work with this mentality, but not anymore.

Steve McCartney says things are different now that employer’s expectation levels have changed between now and then.

People are expected to more work, in less time and the pressures are far greater than ever before.

With mining and construction projects coming to a close all over the country, the pressure to ‘keep you head down’ while you’re on the job is at a high.

Partially because the demand for FIFO jobs in Australia is so high, nearly every job is replaceable, which adds extra pressure.

There have been submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry from FIFO employees who say that they encourage mental health treatment amongst their employees.

There have also been reports of employees saying their workmates have been sent home because the company doesn’t want to deal with them and that they’re quickly replaced.

With these two polar opposite accounts of mental health issues to do with FIFO/DIDO work arrangements, the results that come from the Parliamentary

Inquiry could either answer questions from FIFO workers and their families, or it could raise further questions aimed at employers.

Steve McCartney says that there are three main things that the AMWU wants to come out of the inquiry;

“(We need) to have some education around mental health, have some peer support on the job, and a pathway back to work (after treatment),” he said.

“This is one of the most important campaigns we have ever run. Because you have got to remember that it doesn’t stop with that member committing suicide, it impacts on the family, on the kids, and it sets a whole course for the rest of their lives.”

Mr Cook says he is hoping that the Parliamentary Inquiry will provide a forum for people to talk about the effect of FIFO work.

He also says that this is a pivotal movement for the industry so that it can be made sure that workers aren’t placed in harms way in the future.

 

If you or anyone you know is experiencing mental health problems, please contact lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 to find out what you can do to beat mental illness.

In one of the world’s richest states, West Australian workers struggle with mental health issues, adding to the list of what it means to be an ‘Aussie battler’. With a seemingly endless battle between companies, unions and politicians, workers and their families are desperate for answers.

 

In the earliest days of the WA gold rush, over 120 years ago, towns and communities were established to host basic living needs for workers.

 

It was a time when would-be prospectors travelled to town, dug for gold, got paid and went home to their families marginally better off than before.

This is the way of life that Western Australian’s still live by to this day, only on a scale larger than anyone could have ever predicted, especially in the late 1800’s.

 

The main difference between now and then is that WA is exporting commodities such alumina, sand, iron ore, nickel, petroleum and uranium at extraordinarily high rates.

 

In fact, in 2014 WA mines sent more than $113 billion worth of minerals and petroleum overseas; almost $310 million per day (Government of Western Australia Department of Mines and Petroleum, 2014).

 

WA’s iron ore market accounted for 57 per cent of those exports (Government of Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum, 2014). Nearly 80 per cent of WA’s Iron Ore comes from WA’s Pilbara region (Geoscience Australia, 2012), which has been described by some geologists as, “iron country” (Geoscience Australia, 2010).

 

One city at the heart of the WA mining industry is Karratha.

 

Karratha, inaugurated as the City of Karratha (COK) in July 2014, is one of the original iron ore mining boomtowns in the country and is now the bustling centre of mining nestled in the WA Pilbara region.

 

In 2013, Karratha was named the sixth largest local economy in the country, producing 6 per cent of Australia’s total gross domestic product (COK, 2015).

 

Karratha is a host to a complex web of residential statuses. Some are based in the COK and drive out to work on mining or construction projects for days or weeks at a time; this is known as DIDO work (Drive-In Drive-Out).

 

Others are based further away; in Perth, the eastern states or even overseas. These are the people who fly-in and fly-out (FIFO) as per their respective rosters.

 

Living conditions for these men and women can be tough depending on how much money a company allocates to accommodation.

 

High-rise apartment buildings, hotels, motels, rooms above pubs, flats, dongas, share houses and caravan parks are some examples of where companies station their workers. In other words, anywhere they can fit them.

 

Some employers make use of ‘bunk-bedding’ to make room for more employees. Back to back sleeping arrangements are also prevalent; while one person is working their shift, someone will be sleeping in your bed, and vice versa.

 

Karratha and its surroundings is just one example of what is happening in and around mining towns and communities all over Australia.

 

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) State Secretary Steve McCartney says some of the time; people don’t necessarily know what they’re getting into when it comes to these work conditions.

 

“If you’re doing it for the first time, you don’t really know what’s going to happen… you’ve got an idea, but you don’t really know,” he said.

 

Mr McCartney recommended that worker use their ‘probation period’ to figure out whether this sort of work is for them, or whether they would be better off taking their skills elsewhere.

 

Due to the worsening conditions people are being placed in and following a spate of suicides across worksites countrywide, on the 20th of August the WA Parliament began an inquiry into the mental health impacts of FIFO work arrangements.

 

Mr McCartney says the AMWU had been pleading for an inquiry like this for years.

 

“We have been campaigning for an inquiry for about 8 years. This is one step in our campaign, but it took 8 years to get that,” he said.

 

“The other steps have been educating our members, and educating bosses… We got our members educated about (mental health issues), so they talked about it more, so we could take it to the bosses to try and explain that they have a problem.”

 

Mr McCartney says the AMWU’s efforts to raise the issue of mental health problems in FIFO work arrangements was ignored by employers because they didn’t want another problem to deal with.

 

“They have been side-stepping these issues for the last 20 years that I know of,” he stated.

Since the inquiry began, there have been over 80 written submissions from Unions, Government departments, not for profit agencies, university researchers, large companies who deal in the industry and mental health groups, just to name some.

 

WA shadow Health Minister Roger Cook says this inquiry is well overdue.

 

“The inquiry was instigated following announcements from Mark McGowan that (the WA Labor party) had been concerned for some time about the mental health impacts of the whole FIFO arrangement,” he said.

 

“One of the particular issues we are concerned about is the sense of isolation and despair which sometimes makes itself felt when people are forced into a FIFO arrangement.”

 

Mr Cook also says that it is important as members of Parliament that he and his colleagues follow through with the inquiry to insure that politicians are doing everything they can to protect workers and understand all the mental health implications that result from these work arrangements.

 

Some people find themselves asking why? Why are the mental health conditions worsening when the reward factor is so high? According to Mining Australia International, the average salary in the whole Australian mining industry is over $100,000 per annum (Mining Australia International, n.d.).

 

In a submission from the Mental Illness Fellowship of WA, they explain that no amount of money is enough to keep mental health issues at bay. Illustrated by a list of more than 50 contributing factors that may lead to mental illness and suicide among FIFO/DIDO workers (Mental Illness Fellowship of WA).

 

Some of the key factors included are, separation from family, transitioning from a residential community to be confined to a work community, drug and alcohol risks associated with high income, social isolation, relationship challenges, limited knowledge and coping strategies on how to maintain mental health.

 

Money can’t buy you out of isolation, it can’t buy your family and community relationships back, and it certainly can’t buy you a positive mental wellbeing.

 

Many of these stressors contribute to the development of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety which, in certain situations can lead to suicide or self-mutilation (Jorm & Reavley, 2013).

 

Research shows that in addition to living with these illnesses people also have to cope with the stigma and discrimination that is associated with them. This can in turn lead to adverse effects such as, delayed help seeking and difficulties with relationships (Jorm & Reavley, 2013).

 

The ‘toughen up princess’ mentality is still something that plagues these work sites to this day. In a general sense, many veteran FIFO workers would have gotten through the early days of work with this mentality, but not anymore.

 

Steve McCartney says things are different now that employer’s expectation levels have changed between now and then.

 

People are expected to more work, in less time and the pressures are far greater than ever before.

 

With mining and construction projects coming to a close all over the country, the pressure to ‘keep you head down’ while you’re on the job is at a high.

 

Partially because the demand for FIFO jobs in Australia is so high, nearly every job is replaceable, which adds extra pressure.

 

There have been submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry from FIFO employees who say that they encourage mental health treatment amongst their employees.

 

There have also been reports of employees saying their workmates have been sent home because the company doesn’t want to deal with them and that they’re quickly replaced.

 

With these two polar opposite accounts of mental health issues to do with FIFO/DIDO work arrangements, the results that come from the Parliamentary

Inquiry could either answer questions from FIFO workers and their families, or it could raise further questions aimed at employers.

 

Steve McCartney says that there are three main things that the AMWU wants to come out of the inquiry;

 

“(We need) to have some education around mental health, have some peer support on the job, and a pathway back to work (after treatment),” he said.

 

“This is one of the most important campaigns we have ever run. Because you have got to remember that it doesn’t stop with that member committing suicide, it impacts on the family, on the kids, and it sets a whole course for the rest of their lives.”

 

Mr Cook says he is hoping that the Parliamentary Inquiry will provide a forum for people to talk about the effect of FIFO work.

 

He also says that this is a pivotal movement for the industry so that it can be made sure that workers aren’t placed in harms way in the future.

 

If you or anyone you know is experiencing mental health problems, please contact lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 to find out what you can do to beat mental illness.