Fly-in fly-out work's high price counted as committee hands down findings on suicides
Summary: Construction workers on a Pilbara mining site are mourning the death of one of their colleagues who took his own life earlier this week.....
Construction workers on a Pilbara mining site are mourning the death of one of their colleagues who took his own life earlier this week.
It's another tragic reminder of the spate of suicides of fly-in, fly-out workers that led to a West Australian parliamentary committee investigating the mental health effects of FIFO work conditions.
Tomorrow the committee hands down its findings. But health professionals and families worry that with the mining slump, workers are even more reluctant to acknowledge mental health issues, fearing they'll lose their job.
Bronwyn Herbert reports.
BRONWYN HERBERT, REPORTER: It's 5 am at Perth Airport, peak hour for FIFO drop-offs. Hundreds of fly-in, fly-out resource workers are saying goodbye to loved ones in the dark.
They're off to work on remote mines and construction sites, often for weeks at a time.
The attraction for most of these workers is the pay, but for some, the price is way too high.
25-year-old concreter Rhys Connor was a FIFO worker for two years, spending four weeks away on site then a week at home. It proved to be a dangerous combination.
RHYS CONNOR (This FIFO Life, July, 2013): Well people do struggle up there with depression and at the moment I'm going through it and you miss your family and you're pretty much there. So, from that point of view, you're, yeah, pretty much in a room every night of the week.
BRONWYN HERBERT: This interview was recorded just days before Rhys took his own life.
QUESTIONER (This FIFO Life, July, 2013): And it can get you down sometimes?
RHYS CONNOR: Yeah, big time, so, yeah, massively, so. And I'm still struggling and, yeah, until I get some help, I'll be on the right track again.
BRONWYN HERBERT: From a young age, Rhys loved horses, just like his dad.
PETER MILLER, FATHER: We used to work together, basically play together. Like, sort of, he became a concreter like myself in our own business. He loved going to the races with us. Like, he loved anything to do with the horses. A very, very happy young fella.
BRONWYN HERBERT: But Rhys became depressed after splitting with his fiancé and he begged his father not to tell his boss.
PETER MILLER: He ultimately said, "Please don't discuss it with them," and he promised that he was gonna get mental, like, help down here when he came back to Perth, which he did. He tried to - he actually tried to seek help. So - but he said - look, he was just scared that the minute that he was reported, he would go into what they call the ERMS system, which is electronic monitoring of the employees or something like that. And so he was just scared that once he got reported in the system, he'd never, ever get a job in the - in mining again.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Nothing could prepare the Miller family for what happened next.
PETER MILLER: Anita in particular had felt funny. Like, she'd a phone call from Rhys the previous day. He was, "Well, oh, Mum, yeah, I'll see you tomorrow, Mum." You know, like, "I'm coming home," blah, blah, blah. No indication whatsoever of him being mentally ill. And then the next day, she didn't - she used to be in contact - in constant contact with him and she sort of didn't have a phone call that day. And she sort of thought that was strange. Anyway, the police came in and basically told us what had happened and that Rhys had been discovered on site up in - like, on the site dead. And we had no - we asked - even asked the police at the time where was his body and they told us, "Oh, he's probably still up on - still up in Newman at the time." So we basically - "You're son's dead." We were in total shock.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Rhys' suicide in his camp room in 2013 was one of nine resource industry workers in the Pilbara who took their own lives in just a 12-month period.
PETER MILLER: Rhys took his own life in a donga. The company didn't even have a - didn't even have an inquest or an investigation into his death because they weren't required to because he took his life in a donga.
BRONWYN HERBERT: The spate of suicides prompted a West Australian parliamentary inquiry into FIFO mental health and tomorrow the committee will hand down its findings.
JULIE LOVENY, SOCIAL WORKER, THIS FIFO LIFE: I would like to see that there are some recommendations around how that's regulated and the duty of care and responsibility being put very much with employers too. I would love to see that the responsibility for FIFO workers when they're on their camps where they live when they're away from home also come under the same sort of responsibility and duty of care that they would should they have an accident, for example, actually on the mine site.
JENNIFER BOWERS, CEO, AUST. CENTRE FOR RURAL & REMOTE MENTAL HEALTH: The national average is around about 20 per cent of somebody suffering a mental health problem in any one year. However, we've found that FIFO workers in Western Australia are more likely to be around 30 per cent.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Dr Jennifer Bowers has been watching the inquiry closely. Her organisation led the most comprehensive study into the mental health impacts of FIFO work.
JENNIFER BOWERS: A lot of the work issues are obviously round some of the things that the inquiry had gone into in great depth under rosters, but it's also around pressure from management, obviously meeting performance targets, having to meet the timelines set by the producers.
BRONWYN HERBERT: Despite the downturn, there are still more than 55,000 resource workers in WA on fly-in, fly-out rosters. The mining industry maintains the FIFO lifestyle itself isn't to blame.
BRUCE CAMPBELL-FRASER, CHAMBER OF MINERALS & ENERGY: Mental health is a really complex issue and it will be impacted upon multi and interacting factors, be that your work environment, your family situation, your financial status. So it's really - it would be unfair and inaccurate to point to one element of someone's life to exacerbate those mental health problems.
JULIE LOVENY: It would be so much better if we could be talking about the fact that we know this is an at-risk group simply because it's a male-dominated industry and the demographic - you know, there would be - a huge percentage of the demographic would be male under 44. We also know risk factors living and working in a remote and isolated areas. So that alone really has us, I think, take the view that we should all be doing something, including the resource sector, rather than trying to defend a position that it's no worse.
BRONWYN HERBERT: For Peter Miller, racetrack meets are much lonelier without his son by his side. But Rhys is constantly in his thoughts, even naming this young racehorse after him.
PETER MILLER: He's called Over the Shoulder because Rhys had a tendency to be affectionate and he would put his arm over people's shoulder, so basically that's why we called him Over the Shoulder. And with a bit of luck, he'll be looking over his shoulder at the opposition.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Bronwyn Herbert reporting. And people seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline or Beyond Blue.