I did FIFO for over 10 years, I have seen the ruin amongst many many people and it makes me feel incredibly sad. Everyone has and is entitled to an opinion, of course the money is good otherwise no-one would be up there. I loved the lifestyle for so many years of it and my FIFO colleagues became my second family. There are of course the sacrifices and one of them i want to talk about here is mental health degradation of some of the FIFO community.
FIFO isn't for the faint hearted, of course its becoming more cushy now with the modern conveniences but back when I started and many moons before I was even born it was an incredibly difficult environment.
In WA alone we have over 50,000 people working FIFO and I really feel like not enough is being done to help these people maintain stable minds.
So many argue that the workers need to toughen up and if they can't handle it then get a job in town. I'm not here to argue that, I'm wanting to voice my concern regarding the fact that we are having too many suicides within this community, and generally it is the men, and some of whom we never would have though was even suffering from a mental illness.
The big mining companies praise themselves on how much they are doing for employee wellness, I beg to differ. Their Health, Safety and Environment sector focuses almost entirely on safety and environment. I saw very little done about Health for almost the entire 10 years I was up there except for offer free flu vaccinations and mole checks!
When I first started working away we were allowed to wear short sleeved shirts and shorts. Not a big thing you say? The mining companies must have got wind that their employees could possibly file lawsuits for skin cancer perhaps? So the move to long sleeve shirts and pants whilst everyone has seen this is a positive move, I really do wonder if it has been detrimental to mental health, and health in general infact. I spent most of my time onsite breaking these 'button up your sleeves' rules. I ate my lunch outside in the stinking heat over summer with my sleeves rolled up to try and get a little vitamin D absorption into my body.
I have since gone on to study fairly indepth the benefits of adequate vitamin D levels in the body, over winter our levels plummet as we generally don't have much exposure to the sun, it;s over summer that we build these levels up and this should tide us over the less absorbent months. Unfortunately Australia as a whole has had the slip slop slap message ingrained into our philosophy that we have turned out to be one of the most deficient nations around! Not bad for a country that has so much sunshine.
So getting back to it's impact on FIFO workers, looking at the guys who work long rosters in construction as I did for the majority of my time away, some would work 6 weeks on and 1 week off. This pretty much equates to 'winter' in terms of skin exposure to the sun, not being allowed to expose the arms or legs or even face for the matter is like living in a constant state of winter. This means that vitamin D stores in the body would most likely be deficient, deficiency and depression go hand in hand.
I have tried to raise this with various HSE Advisors from many of the big companies, they generally laugh at me and state that if people can't handle it out on site then they should leave. I have only started my spiel and have written only entirely about vitamin D, there are so many other factors! So many!
Another factor is the intense fatigue that wrecks havoc with the body, some say they are not affected by it, but then others find it difficult to deal with. Firstly most companies have a 'fatigue management plan' in place which really doesn't mean much. It means they are said to be assisting with fatigue but it's all there for show if you ask me. If they really cared about fatigue they wouldn't have you starting the first day of your swing boarding a plane at 5.20am or earlier. It seems the fatigue management plan really does contradict itself here meaning a wake up call of between 2-4am. This is in the middle of the restorative sleep cycle that shouldn't really end until around 5-6am. This means starting the first day of the swing with intense fatigue, I remember sitting at a computer staring blankly at the screen for most of the afternoon. I wondered if I could ask my supervisor if I could go home early so that I could have a sleep, I wondered that every single time because had I asked I know what I would have been told.
So you start your swing on the backfoot really, and this happens every single time. Having fatigue is like being affected by alcohol, it reduces cognitive function and of course the mind and its ability to think straight. Some people never catch up on this fatigue, especially when they get into the pattern of heading straight to the wet mess after work and sit there all night without having an adequate dinner. Drinking and depression go hand in hand, its a tough cycle because many are drinking to forget about the home life they have left or because they are feeling low. It's a catch 22 situation because they are drinking to forget but this in turn is making their minds even worse. Don't forget I am not talking about everyone who has a beer in the evening, I am just talking about the vulnerable person who has been affected.
Now we have the vulnerable person who has low vitamin D levels, is fatigued and is at the pub drinking alcohol and we then put them on nightshift! Sure, some people can handle nightshift really well and others cannot at all. We have a circadian rythym which is how our body naturally functions - restoring and repairs happen throughout this sleep time usually between 10pm - 6am. This obviously doesn't happen when one is forced to stay awake all night and sleep during the day. The body doesn't restore well if its on nightshift so this adds to the strain on the body and the intense fatigue that some suffer because of it. It would be incredibly unmanly to complain about this to the HSE team, it's all part of the mining culture not to stand out and voice opinions on this.
Of course one of the other most important aspects of health mental illness on a minesite is the food. Don't get me wrong I think it is fantastic that they provide such a variety of foods that cater to most people out there (except for the super health conscious but thats a separate issue!). For those of you who haven't been to a minesite the food is one big smorgasboard for breakfast lunch and dinner. I for one rarely touched the breakfast bainmarie due to time contraints and the wish to stay in bed an extra 10 minutes in the morning! But there are large amounts that think it's the opportunity to pile plates high with bacon, hashbrowns, deep fried samosas and whatever other fare the breakfast chef puts out for the morning, not to mention the endless supply of red or green cordial that some down at 5am. Sure it is ok to treat yourself every now and then to this but everyday places a massive strain on the body. All the damaged fats that need to be processed along with the sugar is not a good way to start the day.
What you eat affects how you think, this may sound a little outlandish to some but what you eat can impact quite heavily on thought patterns. The gut is responsible for so much more than we have ever realised before. Think of your brain as a tree, the foligage and branches make up the large portion of it. The trunk heads down to the gut where the roots are nourished, if there is a pile of red cordial and deep fried matter in the gut then what nourishment do the roots take back up to the brain? Nothing, absolutely nothing and this is only the breakfast we have discussed here. Top it off with a pie for lunch and some more deep fried matter at night along with a stop at the dessert bar for some gluten and sugar - it's a recipe for disaster for the brain. Don't get me wrong - for some people having the FIFO food is a luxury but I am focusing on the vulnerable here.
The brain needs nourishing fats to be able to function properly - think omega 3's including walnuts and salmon, other fats such as avocado and olive oil. How often do you see these items on a minesite? Exactly, the only thing I have ever seen is olive oil but that is not used widely. I highly recommend FIFO workers to supplement with a good quality fish oil.
Relationships - I have lost count of how many people I know who work FIFO who have split with their families/partners/wives/husbands due to their FIFO lifestyle. What about the children, I know so many men in particular who have missed their children's first steps, words, birthdays. These children grow up without a father which i can imagine is rather taxing on the mental health of these men.
At what cost has FIFO given to our community? For a start it's become and incredibly expensive place to live and own a house. This adds extra pressure to said vulnerable FIFO workers with their incredibly large mortgages, they feel pressured to stay in such an occupation because they could never afford to pay the mortgage with a 'town job'.
So commonly talked about is the swiss cheese effect in mining so if we continue with that theme lets look at the factors above again - a fatigued male who has no sun exposure, is incredibly fatigued and has been drinking alcohol at night and eating poor quality foods in addition to that. Imagine hes having issues at home with his partner with whom he hasn't seen for four weeks, it's not a good picture to paint, the holes in the swiss cheese are starting to line up.
Unfortunately I have not had a chance to finish this, but I will do so in the coming weeks and make it less of a ramble and more of an informed easy to read article. Thanks for reading the unedited version and please look after our FIFO friends who may be calling out for help.
Vital Health & Nutrition
A few delightful photo galleries, a few controversial topics.