The Western Australian Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, in conjunction with the Commission for Occupational Safety and Health and the Mining Industry Advisory Committee, has released a Code of Practice “Mentally healthy workplaces for fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers in the resources and construction sectors” (Code).[1]  The Code recommends implementing a risk-based approach to prevent and manage harm from psychosocial hazards and risk factors in the workplace.

The Code is the first of its kind in Australia, and follows on from a research report provided to the WA Mental Health Commission in September 2018.[2] The aim is to provide guidelines for establishing, monitoring and maintaining the mental health of FIFO workers. Although it is targeted at the resources and construction sectors in Western Australia, the Code is relevant to any employer with a FIFO workforce or a long distance commuting workforce, and therefore provides a useful model for many employers across Australia.

The Code also highlights the importance of a mentally healthy workplace and the importance of leadership and workplace culture in developing and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace.

Mental health risk factors for FIFO workers

As part of step one of the proposed risk management process, the Code identifies a number of psycho-social hazards prevalent among FIFO workers, due to the nature of their work, including:

  • extended working hours and changes in shift rotations;
  • the large number of consecutive days worked, and the ratio of ‘on’ to ‘off’ periods;
  • the lack of control over aspects of accommodation arrangements;
  • exposure to extreme temperatures and poor air quality;
  • adverse natural events, such as cyclones or bushfires, that can restrict travel and create uncertainty for workers and their families;
  • isolated working conditions, with limited access to recreational facilities or communication technology;
  • lengthy travel times;
  • mental and physical fatigue; and
  • the use of alcohol and illicit substances.

Key recommendations

The Code outlines a number of recommendations for employers to consider to minimise/manage the mental health risks of FIFO workers. Key recommendations include:

  • implementing shorter shift rosters (for example, one week on, one week off);
  • providing more ‘permanent’ accommodation for workers on site, rather than using the practice of ‘motelling’ whereby workers’ accommodation changes from swing to swing;
  • providing reliable communication infrastructure on site;
  • encouraging safe social activities on site; and
  • providing emergency response and crisis management plans that address mental health issues, including suicidal behaviour.

What should employers do?

Employers in WA resources or construction sectors: the Code provides practical guidance on the management of risks to FIFO workers’ mental health. The Code does not have the same legal force as legislation or regulations but, if an employer were to face prosecution for a breach of its duty of care under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (WA) or the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 (WA), non-compliance with the Code may be evidence of a breach. For this reason, employers should either comply with the Code, where relevant and reasonably practicable, or adopt and follow other measures that provide the same level of protection against the identified risks to mental health.

Other employers: while the Code does not have any legal or evidentiary force, it provides a useful blueprint for any employer with a FIFO or drive-in drive-out workforce to identify, assess, monitor and better manage the risks to the mental health of their workforce and, for this reason, should be carefully reviewed. More broadly, the Code also looks at the importance of a mentally healthy workplace and the role leaders and workplace culture play in establishing such a workplace. As such, it would be prudent for all employers to review the Code and at least consider whether any of the Code’s recommendations should form part of their WHS management plan.

The Code can be accessed here.

[1] http://www.dmp.wa.gov.au/Documents/Safety/MSH_MHW_FIFO_COP.pdf

[2] https://www.mhc.wa.gov.au/media/2548/impact-of-fifo-work-arrangement-on-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-of-fifo-workers-summary-report.pdf

Thank you to Kellie Hayman for her contribution to this article.

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