• 'We just take the abuse, the bullying': The human cost of WA's FIFO economy
'We just take the abuse, the bullying': The human cost of WA's FIFO economy
26 Oct, 2017, 1 Comment

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. Over coming weeks, WAtoday will investigate current and former employee experiences working inside the state's multi-billion-dollar mining machine.....


Recommendation 14 of 'The impact of FIFO work practices on mental health' report from 2015 says:


"That the Minister for Mines and Petroleum ensures the Code of Practice on FIFO work arrangements includes a provision for the development of workplace cultures that are supportive of good mental health and wellbeing."


The 2015 inquiry paints a grim picture about the lack of focus on the mental wellbeing of WA's fly-in, fly-out workforce.


The 2015 inquiry paints a grim picture about the lack of focus on the mental wellbeing of WA's fly-in, fly-out workforce. Photo: Fairfax Media


It was a post-work meeting at Chevron's Wheatstone LNG site earlier this year that has haunted Adam* for more than a year and has forced him to take stress leave from his job after nine months on the project.


His team had prepared to clock off for the day, and Adam had finished his shift as a mechanical fitter for US sub-contractor Bechtel.


It was one of the warmer days that week, although it hadn't been hot enough to be uncomfortable. The team had been looking forward to clocking off and relaxing with a mid-week drink.


"Some of us were laughing and joking, and I think everyone was looking forward to getting on the buses and getting back to the village," Adam said.


But he had a feeling his workmates wouldn't get their wish of an after-work drink very quickly.


He had heard whispers of a close-out meeting set for 3pm, the subject being accusations of bullying by senior staff. Close-out meetings are common on the Wheatstone site, and are used as a time for a debrief about the day's work.


Adam overheard a conversation in one of the offices regarding the meeting, and had a feeling it had to do with a crude poem he had heard had been written about one of their supervisors on the inside of a toilet block.


The graffiti referred to the supervisor as a "protected species" – an apparent reference to a fairly serious incident he was said to have escaped punishment for earlier that month.


 Adam believed the close-out meeting would have something to do with that, and he didn't expect the debrief to go for more than five minutes.


As the 80-something personnel walked over to where their lead mechanical superintendent stood, Adam sensed something was off.

Workers at the Wheatstone LNG project were called to a close-out meeting after work.


Workers at the Wheatstone LNG project were called to a close-out meeting after work.


"You could tell he was pissed off," he said.


"But then, he always looked pretty pissed off and miserable anyway. Everyone was wondering what it could be about... we just thought it was the graffiti. Of course when we saw him we had an idea it wasn't going to be good."


Their supervisor called them over under a propane rack – a cool, quiet place for the large group of personnel to have a meeting.


It was then that the supervisor allegedly unleashed on his employees.  


Adam said the man addressed the seven mechanical teams as "weak gutted dogs, wife beaters, no better than paedophiles, rapists".


This was all while he was supposed to be addressing apparent allegations he had been using "bullying tactics" on the Bechtel mechanical crew.


Adam remembers the crowd forced to listen to his boss' barrage was silent.


"It was passionate. He spoke with a lot of passion there; that would be the best way to explain it," Adam said.


The supervisor went on.


"This weak dog c--t, whoever he is, is most definitely a s--t tradesman, undermining others due to his own insecurities as a man," he allegedly said.


"Bunch of gutless, worthless c---s who don't have the gonads" – he grabbed his crotch to emphasise his point – "to say it to my face."


Adam said while the tirade went on for only around two minutes, he could immediately see the effect it had on the crew members around him.


"Everyone was just taken aback – thinking 'what the f--k just happened?' Everyone was in that much shock no one said anything to him. We just went back to camp," he said.


"People were pissed off. You don't expect that kind of verbal slinging from someone in a leadership position, and especially not something as completely unjustifiable as that. He was yelling and swearing... it was just wildly inappropriate," he said.

The mood was decidedly sombre after the meeting.


The mood was decidedly sombre after the meeting. 


The mechanical crew still went to the pub as they had originally planned, although the mood was significantly lower than had been anticipated.


After speaking with his fellow crew members, Adam wrote a letter on behalf of the workers regarding the actions of their supervisor: they had no faith in him to manage the work site, and they wanted action from the site's sub-contractor.


Over 200 workers signed off on Adam's statement alleging their employer had failed to ensure a bully-free workplace, and the letter was submitted to Bechtel management.


Talking the talk


In the Education and Health Standing Committee's 2015 report, workplace bullying on WA mine sites was highlighted as one of the main factors relating to employee mental illness.


"Bullying was identified by several submitters as being prevalent on resource sites. The Committee heard from many private submitters that bullying was widespread across sites, and that it often went unreported. One of the reasons for this, it was suggested, was that the bullying often involved a supervisor," the report said.


"When bullying did occur, the fact that workers were constantly around colleagues even when off-shift compounded the problem.


"The Committee heard that it was difficult for individuals to raise incidences of bullying due to fear of putting their employment in jeopardy by engaging in the complaints process."


But in a submission from Australian Mines and Metals Association, the committee heard that:


"All organisations that AMMA has consulted... do not tolerate such behaviours and have internal mechanisms in place to combat them... these provide employees and third parties that could be bullied or harassed with options to independently, anonymously and confidentially disclose their allegations for proper investigation and where warranted, action."


When asked what had happened to eradicate bullying on mine sites since the 2015 report, Australian Metal Workers Union state secretary Steve McCartney's response was brief and simple:


"Nothing," he said.


"The government and the industry have not even been close to being proactive in stopping any of this."


He said bullying behaviour on site had an undeniable detrimental effect on workers' mental health.

'Bullying on site is rife' says Steve McCartney, AMWU state secretary.


'Bullying on site is rife' says Steve McCartney, AMWU state secretary.


"Can you imagine going to work for 10 or 12 hours, isolated from your family and friends and getting bullied? And how much impact that would put on your mental health?" he said.



"What we are expecting from this government is to pick up these reports – they are now trying to make positive mental health outcomes happen, which is more action than [the Liberal government] did in the last eight years.


"We are hoping on the back of this complaint of bullying on such a wide scale that we can get an investigation into bullying in construction."


Mines safety director for the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety Andrew Chaplyn said in 2016 a working group comprising of representatives from the industry, unions and mental health organisations was established to identify best practice for positive mental health wellbeing in the resources sector.


"The department also has an ongoing strategy to address mental health issues in the resources industry," he said.


"The department has also started work on the 'Code of Practice on Mental Health for FIFO Workers in the Resources and Construction Sectors'."


He said the government was committed to addressing mental health issues in the industry and fully supported the implementation of a code of practice and the aims of the working group.


Walking the walk


After more than 200 of his co-workers had signed Adam's letter explaining how the team had "lost faith" and taken "offence" at their supervisor about his "unprofessional", "offensive" and "intimidating" behaviour it was rejected by Bechtel management.


Mr McCartney said he was immediately contacted by workers about the close-out meeting, the alleged abuse and asked to assist workers with the letter.


He said the company's human resources department formally refused to accept the letter, saying workers would be required to lodge individual complaints through the company's disputes process. 


This would mean more than 200 workers would have to go through the company's human resources program, an internal process which could take months to complete.


Mr McCartney said this suggestion did intimidate workers, fearing they "would be on that next redundancies list".


"Workers came to me and aired their complaints about this meeting to me and I reported it to management," he said.


He  said he also passed on the letter to the Department of Mines and Petroleum and WorkSafe confirmed they received a report about the incident.


"Further information was requested in order to facilitate an investigation, but to date no further information has been received, hence the alleged incident has not been investigated," a WorkSafe spokeswoman said.


"When the additional information is received, WorkSafe will make a decision on whether to investigate."


But Mr McCartney, who met with WorkSafe on Tuesday to discuss the incident, said he would not walk away from the case.


"We will make an example of him," he said.


"We will take this case everywhere we can to try and create change. I want workers to be able to stop and discuss to have a safe workplace - without fear or favour."


What is 'appropriate action'?


Mr McCartney said Bechtel management responded by reprimanding the supervisor and asking him to apologise to the mechanical crew.


"That apology started with 'I've been told to come and apologise' and went downhill from there," Mr McCartney said.


After pressure from both the team and the AMWU, Bechtel issued a statement in regards to the incident.


"Bechtel takes all matters of this nature very seriously," a company spokesperson said.


"On this particular occasion, a thorough investigation was conducted and appropriate action has been taken."


Bechtel's Wheatstone project manager Paul Marsden told WAtoday in a statement that the allegation was "investigated immediately after it was reported to have occurred" and that "no petition of signatures had been provided".


Mr Marsden did not comment on what was involved in the investigation of the alleged incident or what action was taken as a result of the probe.


"We are unable to talk about the specifics for the privacy of our employees, as we do for any such case," he said.


Instead he pointed to the company guidelines, which "clearly define acceptable standards of ethical behaviour and the consequences for failing to comply".


"We have developed and implemented a wide range of programs and policies directed at workplace behaviour, and these are implemented on every project," Mr Marsden said.

Excerpt from the code of conduct from US construction


Excerpt from the code of conduct from US construction giant Bechtel.


He also pointed at a handbook by the company which provides an array of information on how to deal with the challenges of FIFO, such as how to conquer loneliness, manage relationships with loved ones at home, and how to be proactive to ensure physical and emotional wellbeing.


"Bechtel recognizes [sic] the challenges with working on remote projects, and on Wheatstone, the attached FIFO Lifestyle Handbook was designed specifically for this project. 


"This booklet provides a wealth of practical information for everyone working on Wheatstone."


Too little, too late


For some of Adam's workmates, Bechtel's statement and the 'apology' wasn't enough.


Adam later found out two of the men who had been standing mere feet from their superintendent while he called them "paedophiles" and "rapists" were victims of sexual abuse.


"He definitely upset them. An old guy – he'd been molested by a priest when he was younger," he said.


"A Scottish bloke. He started drinking quite heavily after that... he was a drinker to begin with, but it definitely got worse.


"At one point he woke me up coming into my room at 1am, yelling 'why should that motherf---er be able to say that stuff and get away with it?'


"He would've gone into his office and beaten the shit out of him if I wasn't there to stop him.


"There were a few more people going for a drink after that instance, I think."​


*Adam's name has been changed in order to protect his privacy.


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 Helpline1800 551 800


watoday.com.au 26/10/2017

Comments.
  • MyPassion

    mnmau
    26 Oct, 2017

    Only those having done FIFO, can truly understand. But it's not them alone that suffer. Their partner feels for their loved one. The kids can't understand why dad reacts the way he does. "Doesn't Dad love me anymore?" they ask themselves. This is the furthest from the truth but there are just things the worker can't or won't talk about, besides, they won't understand and there's nothing they can do about. Or is there? But we should not look at FIFO workers alone. Neither should we look at just one gender. Those residential workers in remote sites away from family, friends and decent TV suffer as well. Some may even have family with them, but not always. The kids may be elsewhere, partner not bringing in the second income, close friends in another state. I have firsthand experience. I've done FIFO work in several states, but none can compare to the one BHP site I worked at. Thankfully is was the only site, ever. Swearing openly by the supervisor to subordinates was a common tactic. Demeaning individuals in meetings was regular. Taking credit was not uncommon. The matter was taken higher up. There are things that cannot be tolerated continuously. But things only got worse. It’s was obvious that the supervisor had been spoken to. The swearing in the open slowed down, but now it became personal and systematic. Behind closed doors with no witnesses in ear-shot made it direct and destructive "You’re not pulling your weight," "You're an embarrassment to me, management and the Department," "You've let the Department down," "No pay increase for you." Very precise tasks and instructions given to complete with-in a distinct deadline. Task or project milestones had to be met. One particular re-designated task, outstanding for years now had to be completed with-in a impossible timeframe. Was that person a competitor? Where instructions purposely vague or unreachable? Who knows? Who cares? It was a one-horse race. This intimidation and subtle aggression affects motivation, self-confidence, careers and too often the desire to continue with anything and I mean anything. I may not have finger-nails to bite, I may still take to the bottle occasionally, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I have an understanding partner I could and still talk to. I may not be getting the big-bucks, I sleep more than just a few hours a night, I no longer spend all those hours at the office and the week-ends are mine.
Leave a reply.
I want to post anonymously.
I want to use my alias.
Would you like to be notified of new comments to this News Thread?           
Yes, email me as new comments are added