“In the old days, coal miners took a caged canary with them underground. If the canary dropped dead the workers knew that the mine is filling up with gas and they need to get out of there.”
The technology has changed but the concept is still important because of the canary acts as a warning of danger.
This is how Ms. Philippa Vojnovic starts her talk on YouTube. Ms. Vojnovic, at the time a Ph.D. Student at Edith Cohan University and author of the thesis “The Miner’s Canary: Intervention and Prevention of FIFO Mental Health Concerns” in 2014.
She explains that work-related suicides becoming an increasing cause for concern in the mining sector. With the stress working away for long periods and fear of redundancy are known to intensify suicidal thoughts, therefore, researchers seeking ways how to increase the well-being and health among fly in fly out workers and to discover ways to encourage workers with mental health problems to access support.
Ms. Vojnovic talks about Rhys Connor, who was a 25-year-old FIFO worker who killed himself in 2013 in his work accommodation. Although he had seen the company’s psychologist and attempted suicide just nine days before his death. The company Rhys worked for was not aware of any risks.
Suicides are not isolated incidents. One of Ms. Vojnovic research participants knew seven co-workers who suicided. The research was one of the first empirical studies which could identify effective support for fly in fly out workers with suicidal thoughts and also showed that mining companies would lose out when workers commit suicide.
Not addressing the issue and dealing with workers suicide leads to high financial costs including closing a mine for a day or longer if this suicide occurs at work and liability claims. Workers suicide also does tremendous damage to the company’s reputation. As an example, she points to France Telecom who got a lot of negative publicity after the suicide of 25 of their employees in a timeframe of two years which lead to an investigation where the outcome was firing the CEO and union actions
Most companies nowadays do offer support programs, but they are underused because of the stigma around getting help and workers are afraid that there are losing their jobs.
A new report released in December 2018 showed there had not been much improvement in managing workers mental health. It says 1/3 of all FIFO workers suffer mental health issues and many workers are struggling with the roster system. The study is so far the largest of its kind including about 3000 fly in fly out workers and their families. The leading researcher Professor Sharon Parker from Curtin University and the Mental Health Minister Roger Cook presented the findings of the report saying the industry needs to make drastic changes in their operations.
The 500-page report proposes a step away from the 4 weeks 1 week off rooster shift, much more rest time and permanent accommodation rooms. The mining industry says it does whatever it can to improve the health and well-being for their workforce while the union says the proposed changes don’t go far enough. The government says it will step in if the situation doesn’t change.
In the end, we all hope that workers will have skills and access to support in the workplace. This can only be achieved through a culture change in the companies by implementing a concept of CARE where everyone looks out for each other and identifies the need for help.
Modern day coal mining workers don’t take canaries with them anymore, but everyone could function as a canary and alarm others about the unseen dangers.
We hope this will reduce mental suffering and suicide for workers and at the same time benefits the mining companies.
Download the full report here: The impact of FIFO work arrangement on the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO workers, the full report.