With 24/7 operations, heavy machinery, demanding rosters, intensive commutes, disruptive sleep environments and inexperienced workers, FIFO-based working environments were always going to be a recipe for serious fatigue risk in Australian mining.
We are lucky here in Australia, we have a mining industry which is one of the safest in the world. While it might seem insignificant to most people, the fact that fatigue has actually been acknowledged as a real and present safety issue is a big step towards greater safety compliance in the industry.
In recent years we have seen significant resources being poured into fatigue research. Guidelines and legislation have been introduced from both policy-makers and regulatory bodies, fatigue management plans have been put in place by companies, fitness for work requirements now include fatigue, and staff are being trained and educated about fatigue management. We are also starting to see fatigue monitoring technology play its part in combatting fatigue risk.
However, even with this kind of commitment to managing and mitigating it, fatigue is and always will be a complex issue and it continues to be a major concern in mining, particularly FIFO operations.
What we are finding is despite all the efforts to date to minimise fatigue risk, there remains a combination of factors holding the industry back. A thesis could be written on the subject however I will attempt to cover a few key areas in this article.
One of the most common barriers to fatigue management and healthy lifestyle for FIFO workers quite simply is lack of time for sufficient rest.
There are many tasks (i.e. getting ready for work, commuting, family contact, eating, exercising, social media and socialising) on top of the standard shift which require a certain time commitment and unfortunately we often see people overreaching and eating into their recommended 7-9 hours of sleep time when on site. Add to this the fact that employees often find it difficult to rest sufficiently in their leave periods due to the lack of physical and psychosocial adjustment and it is clear why we are seeing a potentially hazardous and never ending cycle of fatigue for these workers.
Another issue we often see is FIFO camps not being conducive to healthy sleep hygiene. There are a range of factors influencing this however the key things that need to be considered are: having sleeping quarters situated away from food and leisure zones, positioning of generators, roads, and other ambient noise and the choice of building materials. There are also key design issues that factor in the effectiveness of sleep accommodation (i.e. noise insulation, light control, temperature control and standard of bedding).
Furthermore, there must be great efforts to separate the sleeping locations of day shift and night workers to avoid sleep disruption, and also educating staff on the link between fatigue and blue light exposure (televisions, computer and mobile devices) before sleep.
The lure of Alcohol and Food
We are also well aware of the problematic lure of alcohol and food in isolating and lonely environments such as FIFO camps—both of which may negatively influence fatigue levels at work and during leave periods. Having seen a definite increase in alcohol use in workers over the years, more needs to be done to support individuals who are turning to alcohol and food as a way to alleviate the routine nature and stress of FIFO and/or camp accommodation
There are also concerns for similar reasons around the alarming findings in an industry study that ¾ of employees were overweight or obese. As we know, a higher percentage of overweight people suffer from sleep disorders as well as increased levels of physical fatigue. This is in addition to impaired health, lower productivity and higher absenteeism.
While there have been serious efforts in the mining industry to address obesity in FIFO workers such as healthy meal choices and healthy lifestyle programs there may still be some situations where the unlimited food supply could be a source of comfort for those not adjusting so well to the FIFO lifestyle. However it should be noted that the FIFO environment may simply attract a unique population of workers who may be, for whatever reasons, more overweight than the national average.
Fast versus slowly rotating. Forward versus backwards rotating. Day versus night shifts. Twelve versus eight hours shifts, and many more combinations. Which is ideal? This is a difficult question to answer but Professor Peter Knauth (1996, Applied Ergonomics, 27(1), 39-44) addresses many of these issues well in his paper. Night shifts are inherently more hazardous than morning or afternoon shifts; possibly up to six times more hazardous. Longer work hours, such as 12 hour schedules and excessive overtime may also, on the balance of evidence, be more hazardous to health and safety of workers than shorter schedules, especially if containing safety-critical or nightshift work or a high workload. Rosters with early morning starts (e.g. before 6 AM) also reduces nightly sleep. In any case, the answer to the preceding question is that there is no ‘ideal’ roster in an absolute sense. Each roster has its own advantages and disadvantages. The company must assess its own requirements, whilst consulting with its workforce, and decide on what combination of rostering arrangements (compromises) work best for their operations. However, in general, current best practice evidence suggests that fast forward rotating schedules may minimise the amount of sleep disruption experienced by workers. The traditional weekly change of shifts appears to be the worst solution of all (Knauth, 1996).
Unfortunately, at this point in time there is no definitive answer to the correct length of swings and how shift work is structured within these swings. Further consideration of roster structures and their inherent strengths and risks should be undertaken. Use of shiftwork specialists and/or shiftwork/fatigue modeling software can be of great assistance here.
The previous points focus more on the technical and policy/procedural aspects of safety. But it is recognised through scientific evidence and operational experience that simply having policies and procedures does not guarantee that workers will comply with requirements. This is where the organisational culture comes into play. One recent industrial study (2013, Safety Science, 59, 28-45) showed that greater investments in safety systems and processes did not improve operational safety in the absence of a highly safety focused culture. In fact, without an effective culture, investments in safety processes were found to potentially hamper safety.
Often we find a lack of understanding in supervisors and upper management about how to deal with fatigue and mental stresses in FIFO workers. Employees resist speaking up or raising concerns for fear of being criticised and told to “harden up” or go home. Workers, on some occasions, can feel vulnerable to scrutiny by management and the perceived threat of job loss.
However the stigma associated with ‘not coping’ or ‘being fatigued’ is one of the main barriers stopping employees from seeking help. They don’t want to be seen as soft, weak or unable to cope and it is this “false bravado” culture which can lead to people hiding concerns.
This situation needs to be addressed and the only way to actually impact in this area is through organisational culture, behavioral examples from leaders and supervisors and the recognition that being safe is more important that being ‘tough’. Supervisor level education and training on recognising symptoms of fatigue and mental stress and how to deal with it is an essential starting point.
Benefits derived from improving fatigue levels include improved workplace safety, awareness of mental health and available support, reduced training and recruitment costs, improved resilience to stress, and increased productivity. It is vital that FIFO workers are supported to develop resilience and the capability to manage the impact of their work arrangements on their personal wellbeing.
By introducing relatively simple programs, companies can enhance the coping skills, emotional wellbeing and personal fatigue management of their workforce. This in turn maximises productivity and company returns.
Still more to be done
Due to the multi-faceted nature of fatigue, it is an issue that will never be completely removed from mining and FIFO environments. Companies are taking proactive steps in this field; however we are still too often seeing fatigue-related incidents which shows there is still more work to be done to reach optimal fatigue management in the industry.