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WMWA submission to help the mental health hazards experienced by mineworkers

October 19, 2021

The Western Mineworkers Alliance has made a strong submission to WA’s Commission for Occupational Safety and Health aimed at reducing some of the mental hazards experienced by the state’s remote mineworkers.


The Commission sought public comment on a Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace code of practice, which will provide practical guidance for workplaces where workers may be exposed to psychological and social hazards such as inappropriate behaviour, violence and aggression, fatigue, burnout, stress and trauma.


The WMWA’s partner unions, the Australian Workers’ Union, and the Mining and Energy Union, represent thousands of WA residential and FIFO mining industry workers. The WMWA is ideally placed to contribute to sensible recommendations for the proposed code.


The Alliance submission cites a number of key concerns and makes recommendations relating to work hours, camp facilities, meals, and mental health support, especially in how these relate to fly-in, fly-out workers.


AWU WA Branch Secretary Brad Gandy says the Alliance and its partner unions play a vital role in campaigning to improve the working lives of the workers employed by some of the world’s largest miners, including Rio Tinto and BHP in their Pilbara operations.


“Mining is inherently dangerous and WMWA members are dealing with heavy and hazardous machinery, often in very hot climates, and are susceptible to other risks,” Mr Gandy says.


“Fatigue is a common byproduct of both the mental and physical challenges mineworkers face and poses material risks to occupational safety and health on mine sites and in camps.


“Addressing some of our members’ psychosocial hazards will vastly contribute to nourishing a safer and healthy workplace.”


The WMWA submission says long work hours are an essential starting point. Mineworkers often work well in access of 12-hour shifts for 14 day swings, including both day and night shifts, in hot and dusty conditions.


“But shift handovers, briefing and trips to and from the worksite, before and after work hours, are not counted, often stretching a 12-hour shift by up to an additional unpaid hour,” Mr Gandy says.


“This means the industry’s already long shifts can stretch out to well more than half a day, contributing to burnout.”


The WMWA says employers should recognise travel times, to and from sites, plus safety briefings and handovers, as part of the regular, paid 12-hour day.


The submission also notes remote work – which already presents serious psychosocial risks for resource workers, with FIFO employees cut off from family and essential support networks – has been made worse by COVID-19, which has further isolated workers due to quarantine requirements


To ensure adequate breaks to allow workers to physically and mentally recover, the WMWA says employers should properly consult with its workforce and consider steps to implement equal-time rostering.

Operational workers should be rostered to spend no more than 14 days away from their home, family and friends in any swing shift, reflecting the demanding and isolated nature of the work and allowing for a sustainable lifestyle.


The submission also points to several basic area employers could do much better onsite, such as meals, accomodation and amenities.


Many mine sites have large numbers of employees working the same shift, often all competing at the same time to access mess halls, gyms, recreation and other facilities, as well as the internet to connect with family and access TV networks.


Greg Busson WA Mining and Energy Division secretary noted that “Camp facilities and amenities – including the internet – must be able to cater for the maximum number of workers wishing to use them at any time,”


“Employers should properly consult with its workforce and consider staggered shift times to allow workers to maximise their time off and unwind with full access to camp amenities and facilities.


“And mineworkers should have their own rooms to return to at the end of their shift, rather than hotbedding.


“Permanent rooms allow workers to feel more at home, as they are somewhere they can leave photos and personal belongings.”


Even when workers can get into the mess, the standard of many camp meals can put a dent in workers’ physical and mental health.


“For FIFO workers, life revolves around meals, but the mining companies often outsource camp meals to the lowest bidder, in order to save money,” Mr Gandy says.


“Where the meals are substandard, many workers actively avoid these meals, and instead go to the onsite bar and get fast-food”


The WMWA says mining companies should implement minimum food standards, including minimum portions of protein and veggies, and providing higher budgets per meal for workers. The minimum standards should be equal to around $14 per meal.


“Surely with a surge in iron ore prices over the past decade, companies have no excuse to forgo the physical wellbeing of workers with cheap and inadequate meals.”


Finally, the WMWA says that with substantial evidence FIFO workers face higher mental health risks due to fatigue and isolation, accessible and confidential mental health support is a must.


It says companies usually engage external employee assistance providers (EAPs) to provide mental health support for employees, but many employees are uncomfortable using these services, which are remote, impersonal, and are aligned with the company.


“We have received feedback from our members that they feel EAP providers do not always understand circumstances at remote mine sites, do not always provide prompt and appropriate support and may not always respect personal confidentiality,” Mr Gandy says.


To rectify the situation the WMWA says mine supervisors and superintendents need to undergo mental health awareness training, and large worksites should have an independent counsellor or psychologist on site in order to support workers as and when they need it.

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