'Toughen up, princess': The human cost of WA's FIFO economy
Summary: While it is almost impossible to find data on mental illness in the WA fly-in, fly-out industry, there are pages and pages of anecdotal evidence. WAtoday investigates current and former employee experiences working inside the state's multimillion-dollar mining machine.....
Recommendation 24 of 'The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health' report from 2015 says: "The Committee calls on resource companies, and the industry's peak bodies, to acknowledge and respond to the demographic information available about the resources FIFO workforce, mental illness, and suicide risk. Ignoring the confluence of these factors places the lives of workers and their wellbeing at risk."
There is a lot of talk among fly-in, fly-out workers about being "tough enough" for the industry. You need to be able to handle the conditions, the stress, the isolation and the hard work. You need to get to site, do your job, and come home.
Nathan, a 45-year-old former Chevron maintenance technician from the Wheatstone LNG gas plant, says it takes a special kind of person to get out of a FIFO bed on a Monday morning.
"You're wearing heavy clothes, you've barely slept, and the sun just pounds on you. If there was somewhere out there as close to hell as possible... I'd imagine it's sometimes pretty similar."
Any of his co-workers would tell you: Nathan was the definition of "tough enough".
He grew up in the Pilbara and his father was heavily involved with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.
He finished school and took up an apprenticeship, and slowly moved up the ranks to work into a senior role.
He was the direct supervisor of around 14 to 15 people for a WA mining contractor, enjoyed the challenge of his job, was well-respected by his employees and was seen as a serious problem-solver with a lot of potential to continue moving up the ranks.
But for nearly nine months now, Nathan has been on stress leave from the Wheatstone LNG gas plant site with severe anxiety, depression and insomnia.
When Nathan explains how he got to the point of relying on anti-depressants to get through the day, the struggle to get out of bed every morning and his inability to get work, his situation sounds familiar.
When he started in October 2015 on a two weeks on, two weeks off roster, Nathan said it was "great, fantastic". He said he had gotten all his training done, and he was hand-picked to go to a site early to oversee phase five of the operation.
Aside from a couple of bumps along the way - "Just a couple of run ins, not very nice stuff" - Nathan was well-liked and was working well with his team.
But one day, he said something popped up in his inbox that he immediately realised wasn't meant for him.
"I was accidentally CC'd into an email that contained three sensitive documents," he said.
"I shouldn't have been CC'd in, and I was worried about what to do. IT told me I should report it, as it would supposedly get me into a lot of trouble if I didn't."
Nathan reported the incident as a grievance, and sent it to his IRM & Document Control officials as a possible breach of the company's IRM policy.
The few who had been privy to the incident, Nathan says, told him he had done the right thing.
The window seat fear is real for WA FIFO workers.
But it wasn't long before Nathan was hauled into a coordinator's office to talk about the "anonymous" report.
And, Nathan says, sitting in the corner of the room was the man who he believed had accidentally sent the email.
"The colleague happened to be in the office too. There was only three people on my team and I'd been CC'd into the email, so I knew they were going to know it was me," he said.
"They asked me if I'd made the IT report, and I said no, and he just goes [in an aggressive tone] 'don't fucking lie to me, I know.' So I said 'yeah, I did report you mate',"
"I was called a f--king dog c--t, and I thought he was going to jump the table and come after me.
"I copped it for 10 minutes from him, but eventually it just got too much and I got up and walked out."
It wasn't the first or the last time Nathan had sat back as a supervisor or management official hurled abuse at him, but it was the first time Nathan decided he wasn't going to sit back and take it.
Nathan lodged a complaint with his company's employee relations professional about the incident, but said the process didn't get him very far.
"My shift coordinator [name retracted]... was very helpful and supportive... [but] I feel it [was] unprofessional to be reprimanded for following company policy."
He said he struggled to prove what had happened due to the seniority of his supervisor, and he alleges despite making a written complaint and speaking with the professional in person, the "investigation" into the incident was concluded to be "a heated incident between parties" and nothing more.
Nathan contends he wasn't heated - just scared.
In a statement submitted to the AMWU, Nathan explained how he had been feeling:
"I [felt] very nervous around [name retracted], and other team members had also mentioned that he had a short fuse," he said.
"I normally looked forward to going to site for each trip, but this time around, not so much."
Ultimately, Nathan says he continued his private battle with the coordinator - and there was even what he describes as a "depressing" running joke with one of his team members.
"We used to say, if it wasn't him it was me. If it wasn't me, it was him. There was always something to have a go at us about. It was mentally exhausting, and I'm not an idiot. I do my job and I know how to do it well.
"I've lost a lot of faith in their policies - it seems like they talk the talk but don't walk the walk.
"It was soon after I reported the IT breach that [I think] people started to treat me differently.
"People would not invite me out for drinks, I started to feel alienated and that people were giving me the cold shoulder.
"If I approached a group of people talking they would stop and disband. [Name redacted] told me that [name redacted] had told him that I had 'dobbed' him in for the IT breach. This... made me anxious."
He told his superiors about his perceived exclusion and isolation, and he was told he needed to "build relationships" in order to improve his time on site.
As his depression, feelings of isolation and constant job anxiety took hold, Nathan confesses his work performance suffered.
He said he had become reclusive and snappy, and according to a company disciplinary write-up provided by Nathan himself, swearing at the same supervisor who had had a crack at him previously.
The isolation got worse.
One of the outcomes of the 2015 inquiry was an understanding FIFO workers were more at risk of developing mental health issues than the general public.
His partner bore the brunt of his issues when he was on his off-swing, and after receiving a formal performance improvement plan from his employer, Nathan was at breaking point.
He went to the on-site Aspen Medical Centre about his depression and anxiety in March this year. This was after months of not sleeping, constant anxiety and an inability to sleep.
Only then did he go for help.
He was pulled off two days into a swing citing a medical evacuation for "stress leave" and he was sent home from site.
"My low point would have to be... when I was sent from site by medical [personnel] for stress, which had culminated from the bullying," he said.
He attempted to stay on in a Perth role in order to pay his bills but after some time on stress leave, Nathan officially quit.
One of his reasons was to pursue a workers compensation claim for "psychological injury".
In Nathan's opinion, there is no question his mental health suffered as a result of the bullying and exclusion.
He has since made complaints to the Fairwork Commission and the Australian Metal Workers Union about his treatment, and subsequent breakdown. He argues the bullying and isolation triggered his mental health issues, and he isn't the only fly-in, fly-out worker to contend the same thing.
"I've lost all confidence in my abilities. I'm on a high dose of depression medications, and I used to wake up five to six times a night for months and months so I was on Stillnox. I used to break down to my partner and tell her I just needed one night's sleep. The stress and anxiety wasn't letting me sleep," he said.
"The situation is deteriorating. People don't come up here to be treated like that."
Nathan says there is a fear ingrained in fly-in, fly-out workers to talk about their mental health issues, and he was no different.
"They talked to me like I was rubbish. One of his comments that stuck with me was 'I have serious concerns about your ability to do the job, and I've lost all faith in our HR hiring process if they hired you to do this'," he said.
"When the guys causing you problems are the ones you're supposed to go to for help, you don't know what to do."
Despite crumbling after months and months of alleged sustained bullying and harassment, Nathan hadn't told people he was struggling until it got to be too much.
Nathan was tough enough, until he wasn't.
Perth Airport is filled with hundreds of fly in and fly out miners heading to various miners in Western Australia on any given day. Photo: Jacky Ghossein.
The window-seat fear
Overwhelmingly, the response to FIFO workers who speak up about problems they're experiencing at work and how it's impacting their mental health isn't a positive one.
Australian Miners Workers Union state secretary Steve McCartney said it wasn't hard to see why workers refused to report their problems if they were having trouble.
"We've heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who have been found to be complaining consistently to management go missing," he said.
"If they've complained about anxiety, not sleeping, or needing a day off due to anxiety or stress, they'll go missing. They'll be told they're no longer required on the job and sent home."
Despite extensive employee-based assistance programs, frameworks, studies, and statistics - there is still a fear that shadows those who engage with company services.
It's the fear they could find themselves on a plane the minute they suggest something could be off about their own mental health - or as it's known in the industry, "the window seat".
On Nathan's site, employee assistance programs were an option.
"All employees are given free and confidential access to our independent Employee Assistance Program for support and management of mental health concerns," a statement from the company said.
"Chevron is fully committed to providing an inclusive work environment which is free from unlawful discrimination and has a strong safety culture and zero tolerance towards inappropriate behaviour at work. This commitment is reflected in all Chevron policies and training."
But when he contends the bullying he endured was aimed at him from different levels of management, it is not hard to guess why he didn't feel comfortable going through an employee assistance program for help.
"I'll give you a scenario," Mr McCartney said.
"You're on a four and one roster. You're on site for a week and you're feeling bad. You go talk to your mental health advisor, or you go talk to your EAP so you can ask for time off. How do you do that anonymously?"
'Bullying on site is rife' says Steve McCartney, AMWU state secretary. Photo: Fairfax Media
The nature of "going missing"
"We had a survey and guys wrote, without a question even being asked, in the comments section about how there was an absolute concern of "going missing" after reporting an issue with their mental health," Mr McCartney said.
"We heard stories of guys who would not take their anti-depressants or hide them, because they were worried they could be caught with them.
"When they make a decision to come forward, they fear they're going to lose the one thing they have left - their job."
Nathan's employer, Chevron, detailed its approach to bullying, harassment and mental health.
"Chevron does not tolerate bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. All allegations of workplace bullying and harassment are taken seriously and investigated by Chevron," a spokesperson said.
"Chevron places the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce and we have a range of measures in place to protect employee wellbeing, including fitness for duty processes, an employee assistance program, supervisor training and mental health resilience training."
The company was unable to comment on Nathan's allegations, due to its policy regarding employee privacy.
'They brush their hands of you'
While Chevron has often led the way when it comes to its own mental health policy, the mining giant still falls victim to a number of problems outlined by the Education and Health Standing Committee's 2015 report.
Across the industry there is no enforced minimum standard requirement to ensure companies do everything they can to support their workers through mental health issues - which only helps to reinforce the "window seat" fear.
Often, individual companies must engage third party providers to perform their liable duty.
For example there is no enforced code regarding mental health evacuations.
Worksafe WA said while it worked with companies to ensure workplace safety and health, they did not have any oversight of mental health evacuations on mine sites.
"Such cases in our jurisdiction are only rarely reported to us. If a case was in our jurisdiction and a complaint was made, we could make enquiries about whether there was a safe system of work."
And when asked if any action had ever been taken against companies who failed to complete a correct mental health evacuation - by either forcing employees off site without a correct doctor evaluation, failing to facilitate a return-to-work plan or without sending them home without supervision while being apparently "vulnerable" - Worksafe said to their knowledge, they had never "taken enforcement action in such a case".
In a nutshell, this means companies have the ability to send employees off site with little to no supervision from an industry regulator.
The 2015 report itself said:
"The Committee notes concerns from unions and individuals that mental health evacuations have sometimes been used as a means to remove a worker from site, and then prevent their return. This was not an area the Committee was able to investigate in any depth," it said.
Mr McCartney said the lack of regulation surrounding mental health programs, evacuation and support was still evident across the industry.
Job security isn't the best in WA's ever-changing mining industry.
'Toughen up, princess'
Ultimately, the report also spells out why the WA mining industry needs a shift away from a hiring process which screens the mental health of potential employees and determines whether or not they are "tough enough" to take on the conditions of a FIFO lifestyle.
"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.
"Rather than attempting to assess workers to profile and select those who are 'tough enough' to withstand the challenges of FIFO, the system of work should be modified to take into account the mental health needs of workers. This would go a long way towards ensuring that FIFO becomes a more sustainable work arrangement.
"The environment was variously described to the Committee as macho, or a 'toughen up princess' style culture. Some witnesses felt that this was starting to change, with some of the old???style attitudes gradually being replaced.
"Nevertheless, it is clear that the cultural environment of the resources industry has in the past been a male-dominated, macho environment, and that has not yet been fully replaced. Many people made the point that because of the culture, some workers were unlikely to seek help even if they were aware that they needed it."
Get support now
If the situation is urgent and you’re concerned you, or someone else, is in immediate danger do not leave the person alone, unless you are concerned for your own safety.
Call the person’s doctor, a mental health crisis service or dial 000 and say that the person’s life is at risk.
If the person agrees, you could go together to the local hospital emergency department for assessment.
Other services include:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
beyondblue Support Service 1300 22 4636
Mates in Construction on 1300 642 111
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800