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Managing a FIFO workforce

FIFO mine worker. File image.

Many studies indicate that the FIFO / DIDO workforce underpinning some of the biggest mining economies in the world is typically synonymous with a range of significant health problems, notably around depression, drugs, and alcohol abuse.

Managing this workforce successfully in the modern mining environment requires a diverse range of specialist skill sets, training, and knowledge. Indeed, the modern mining management team may find itself called upon to design, deliver and implement a range of fairly unique and customised services. They can be involved in anything including:

  • monitoring food quality,
  • addressing fatigue, stress, mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse with individual team members,
  • real estate,
  • designing customised villages/camps for their entire FIFO workforce, in a range of environments,
  • planning sporting, social, and recreational activities,
  • appropriately allocating accommodation,

It’s also often the case that the degree of support offered to FIFO / DIDO employees is dependent upon the amount of cash available to provide it.

The BHPs, Rio Tinto’s, Fortesque Metals, Newcrests etc of the world typically have large amounts of cash available to invest in comprehensive workplace policies designed to recognise and deal with the diverse range of specific needs FIFO / DIDO employees and their families have.

Smaller outfits though can find it difficult to come up ​with the significant resources needed to fund these types of comprehensive policies, and also employ the range of expertise needed to manage them successfully. Thus we find there is a wide range of workplace experiences experienced by FIFO / DIDO workers and their families depending on the size and financial capacity of their employer.

Cost Effective FIFO / DIDO Management Measures Any Company Can Implement

However, there are a range of measures that can be successfully implemented by companies of any size, regardless of available resources.

Provide comprehensive induction programs for new FIFO / DIDO hires and their families, and make sure they actually participate in them.

People’s reasons for deciding to work FIFO / DIDO on a remote mine site are many and varied but unless they’ve done it before, it can come as a very big culture shock. Reports ​from the 2000’s indicate that lack of knowledge and experience around the FIFO lifestyle, and even just how the mining industry in general ‘works’, were a significant problem at the time. Today many companies do provide new employees and their families with a comprehensive introduction to the lifestyle before their first shift. Some even offer an extensive ‘trial’ period but even so, the reality can still be disturbing and disrupting for new hires to the FIFO world.

Try to ensure workplace culture is as friendly and non-divisive/disruptive as possible.

Many elements in the FIFO / DIDO workplace culture create issues for employees and ultimately their families. Notably, inequalities in conditions between those employed directly by a mining company and those employed through subcontractors can be significant, and have been found to be a contributing factor to the traditionally higher turnover rate amongst FIFO contract workers.​

Various reports over the years for instance have found that direct mining company employees often get allocated better accommodation, have more access to camp facilities, enjoy shorter rosters, and receive more benefits overall than their subcontracted counterparts.  They may also get more assistance generally with managing family, stress, health, and relationship issues caused by their job.  These issues all add to the negative workplace culture experiences encountered by many FIFO / DIDO workers and require that companies work with their subcontracting partners to resolve them. ​

Make sure accommodation and facilities for FIFO/DIDO employees are fit for purpose, and that the policies and processes by which these employees are allocated accommodation are appropriate and best practice.

On-site FIFO accommodation varies widely in terms of quality, design, adequacy, and management. Whilst large companies can pour resources into custom-built camps with all the mod cons and many of the comforts of home, smaller ones usually can’t. Thus accommodation can range from state of the art villages to very basic dongas to camp-style outfits to rented houses and apartments. Privacy, access to ablution facilities, and ‘camp rules’ likewise vary considerably.

Common complaints include:

  • lack of sleep due to noise (particularly an issue with night shift workers who have been allocated rooms close to areas that see a lot of daytime activity – this gets back to knowing how to allocate accommodation appropriately),
  • having to use communal / shared ablution facilities,
  • restrictive camp rules and regulations,
  • poor or inappropriate food / catering arrangements,
  • poor cleaning and housekeeping services,
  • lack of recreational facilities and social activities

Be prepared to work extensively with FIFO / DIDO employees (and their families) to help them with any employment related health and relationship issues.

Most companies that employ FIFO / DIDO workers now recognise they have both a legal and a moral obligation to provide support services to help them cope with any issues that may arise from this type of lifestyle. This includes dealing with

  • drug and alcohol problems,
  • stress, fatigue, and mental health issues,
  • family and relationship concerns.

Work on changing attitudes towards getting medical help and utilising available support systems

Despite all the publicity about it, the FIFO work place is still very much a ‘macho’ one in which admitting to health problems like mental health issues is seen as a weakness. Lifeline WA conducted an extensive survey into mental health ​amongst FIFO workers in Western Australia early last decade and highlighted a number of significant issues. It noted for instance that many FIFO employees, particularly men, were unable to recognise when issues like stress were becoming problematic for them.

It also found a pervasive culture of barriers that prevented those who needed help from seeking it out. These barriers included worry about losing their job, a fear of ridicule and embarrassment, and mistrust of the support services available.

The implementation of 24-hour operations has led to the rise of the 12-hour rotating shift

Worryingly, a subsequent report ​done in 2018 found that many of these things really hadn’t changed much. There was, and still is, an overwhelming ‘suck it up princess’ attitude, especially amongst male employees. There is still a perception that admitting to mental health problems is a sign of weakness. Male employees generally are still extremely uneasy about discussing their feelings and emotions, even with professionals. There are also concerns that their confidentiality will be breached if they do.  Therefore, even though companies themselves have done a lot of work around education and making more resources available for those who need them, there is clearly still a fair way to go.

Understand the considerable health ramifications of certain types of roster cycles

The implementation of 24-hour operations has led to the rise of the 12-hour rotating shift. Employees work a set number of days on site before taking a set number of days off. Depending on the company, and the type of work involved, rotating day / night shifts are common. Whilst this may be practical for the company, it can have serious health implications because the constant switching between day and night shifts upsets our circadian rhythm.  We talked about the health ramifications of various types of rosters in a previous article. ​

Ensure FIFO / DIDO employees have access to communication infrastructure and that the policies governing its use are fair and reasonable.

Studies ​have found that the failure of companies to allow, or provide information and infrastructure that allow, family to get in touch with people working on site can be a significant cause of frustration and stress. Keeping in touch with family and friends is important at any time but it becomes even more significant for FIFO / DIDO workers. Often the type of emotional support that can only be provided by regular contact with family means the difference between coping and not coping with the work. 

Easy access to the only available public phones on site, and lack of privacy when using them/it, has been a significant issue in the past. Queues for these phones, which were often sitting in full view and even within earshot of everyone else waiting to use them, were common. Additionally, restrictive company policies governing the use of available communication infrastructure often compounded the issue.

People get into the FIFO / DIDO lifestyle for a range of reasons but ultimately they are an essential and integral part of the industry

Fortunately, the considerable advances in communication technology over the past decade have made it a lot easier for FIFO / DIDO employees and their families to keep in touch so this has become less of an issue. However, mobile phone coverage and Internet access in very remote areas or developing countries can still be an issue. In these cases, supplying reliable alternative communication infrastructure, and ensuring employees and their families are provided with the information needed to use it, is important.

Consider implementing more flexible working options in the workplace

Flexible management styles designed to work with employees as their personal circumstances change typically retain those employees for longer than rigid workplace policies do. Employees do get married, have children, experience changing family commitments and so on. Recognising and accepting this as a fact of life, and working with employees to come up with flexible solutions that allow them to fulfil both their work and personal commitments, goes a long way towards creating a working environment that attracts, and retains, good employees. 

This is particularly important for FIFO / DIDO employees with families. Something as simple as knowing there are contingency plans in place for emergencies that will let them get back to their families quickly should the need arise can remove a significant source of stress ​for many workers.

Working in a flexible environment also improves productivity. An employee who is distracted by personal issues they can’t deal with due to inflexible work policies is not only going to be less focused on their job and thus less productive, they can also be a liability in a dangerous environment like a mine site. On the other hand, employers who are sensitive and responsive to the personal needs of their employees (offer flexible leave arrangements, will consider shorter roster cycles if requested and/or allow staff to work from home in the event of a family crisis) will generally have more focussed, productive teams.

People get into the FIFO / DIDO lifestyle for a range of reasons but ultimately they are an essential and integral part of the industry. Entire sectors of the industry absolutely rely on them in order to function. Unfortunately, it’s also a lifestyle that creates a range of associated issues, many of which have been ignored in the past to the detriment of these employees and their families.

Fortunately most companies today that rely on FIFO / DIDO employees have stepped up to the plate (or been forced to) and implemented programs and policies that address these issues.

(This article first appeared in Mining International Inc.)