Deborah McGee discusses the effects fly-in-fly-out has on commuters and the reasons why people decide to enter and continue to live this type of lifestyle

Long-distance commuters are no longer considered a rare breed; in fact, almost every large organisation has this type of employee among their ranks and their numbers are growing. Long-distance commuting can often provide access to employment opportunities on a wider geographical labour market without forcing people to leave a familiar neighbourhood and family ties on a permanent basis.

Australia – a country rich in natural resources and one of the world’s leading mining nations – ranks in the top six countries worldwide for resources (Commonwealth of Australia 2013). Western Australia’s mineral and petroleum industry in 2013-14 was valued at a record $121.6 billion, 20 per cent higher than the previous year (Dept of Mines, 2014a).

The Australian mining industry directly employs approximately 246,100 people (ABS August 2014) and Western Australia being one of the most productive and diversified mining regions in the world directly employed approximately 102,300 workers in November 2014, of which about 67,000 were employed via fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) arrangements (Roocke, 2014).

There are currently 202 operational mine sites in WA (Australian Mining 2014), of which the majority are located in remote areas. FIFO workforce practices and the concept of fly-in fly-out commuting arrangements was adapted in the mid 1980s with Argle Diamond mine in the Kimberly region being one of the very first FIFO operations (Sibbel, 2010).

FIFO operations can be described as “those which involve work in relatively remote locations and lodging accommodation is provided for workers at the site but not for their families. Schedules are established whereby employees spend a fixed number of days working at the site, followed by a fixed number of days at home” (Storey 2001, p135).

There is very little data available on the use of FIFO workforce arrangements in the resources industry, making it difficult to properly establish the extent of the use of FIFO arrangements. Without access to accurate up-to-date information on the numbers of FIFO workers, the impacts on the workforce cannot be adequately assessed or addressed (Cancer of the Bush, 2013).

Is FIFO gender equal?

FIFO arrangements can be positive for an individual when it is freely chosen but perceived negatively if it is experienced as unwanted. FIFO is, however, not gender equal; despite political statements to the contrary. For instance, men commute to a larger extent than women do, both in number of trips and trip length. However, the proportion of women working in the resources sector has increased over the years, growing from 11 per cent in 2001 to 15 per cent in 2011 (Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA), 2012).

Long-distance commuting originated in the 1950s in the oil and gas industry as more platforms began to be built offshore. This practice began in the Gulf of Mexico and spread to the North Sea by the 1960s. As a result of these platform developments, long-distance commuting became a necessity. It was impossible for workers to commute daily, especially as platforms were being built farther out from land (Storey, 2010).

This new form of work organisation, where workers spent long periods of time away from family and friends, had a number of impacts on the workers’ lives at home and work. Originally, this lifestyle was perceived to be largely negative. Issues highlighted from research mainly among North Sea, Canadian and Norwegian offshore oil workers and their families, revealed that while the benefits afforded better lifestyle, FIFO was problematic to some degree for all workers and highly problematic for some.

Problems from the employees’ point of view included stress associated with regular partings and reunions, length of roster cycle, maintaining ongoing relationships, social isolation, difficulties with role definition and air safety considerations (Parkes et al, 2005; Storey et al, 1989).

Employees and their families make informed choices that are based both on employment satisfaction (which includes remuneration, working hours and opportunities for training and advancement) and on the developmental needs of family members, for example, children’s educational needs, availability of family support, health services, employment and career opportunities for family members. The salience of these needs varies according to the family’s position in the family life-cycle.

A study in the Pilbara region of WA found that many couples take around six months to work out if the FIFO lifestyle is suitable for them and their families (Watts 2004), with the most commonly reported reasons for undertaking FIFO being an improved financial situation and increased quality time spent with family and friends (Torkington, 2011; Clifford, 2009). A survey conducted in 2013 found that 80 per cent of workers said that the high salary was the most important factor in remaining in FIFO employment (Creating Communities 2014).

While high remuneration packages and penalty rates are one way of compensating shift-workers for the loss of socially valuable time, it may be more beneficial to reduce the impact of working time arrangements through flexible rostering strategies (Daly, 2014).

400 per cent increase in 20 years

FIFO is more prevalent in WA than any other state due to its abundance of mineral resources and comprises both off-shore oil and gas and land-based mining industries. The Western Australian Local Government Agency (WALGA) described the level of increase: “in the last 20 years, the number of WA FIFO employees has increased 400 per cent” (House of Representatives Committee, 2013, pp13-14)

Rosters have been identified as one of the biggest issues impacting on satisfaction with FIFO (Clifford, 2009; Gallegos, 2006; Gent, 2004) and lower compression rosters are seen to be more preferable in terms of family and personal relationships, and mental health and wellbeing. It was also viewed that employees’ social life had changed dramatically as they were no longer on the same shift pattern as their friends and could not socialise or go away with them.

Some workers in the Australian mining industry spend considerably long periods of time at remote mining camps than ‘at home’ but others who work compressed work schedules on rotation may spend equal amounts of time at work and on leave. Henry et al 2013 found that significant stress arose from having a ‘spilt lifestyle’, which include accommodation and work conditions on site, which were isolating and subject to overly onerous rules that can have a tendency for workers to lose their sense of self and purpose.

As the resources sector has become heavily reliant upon FIFO workers, it is important to understand the impacts of FIFO work arrangements on employees and their personal life. Most people find the remote work environment and periods of separation from friends and family the most challenging aspects of the FIFO lifestyle.

Impact of FIFO on relationships and family life

Relationship issues were a major concern expressed at the federal government’s FIFO inquiry; it was suggested that there are higher rates of divorced people (one in 10 workers compared with one in 12 in the general Australian population) in the resources sector – one of the main factors contributing to relationship difficulties is the constant partings and reunions which can lead to unresolved issues and, for single employees, FIFO was seen as causing an obstacle in forming relationships.

However, previous studies have found that some WA FIFO partners enjoyed their independence while the employee was away, while others were dissatisfied with ‘forced independence’ or an increased burden of family and domestic responsibilities during this time (Reynolds, 2004; Gallegos, 2006).

FIFO2The availability of adequate communication between site and their homes is one of the most important issues highlighted by FIFO employees. Workers have a limited window of time to contact partners and family at the end of their shifts, and which also may be affected by communications technology. The ability to communicate regularly with family and friends can subtly outweigh the reality of the remoteness and isolation of the mine site and also with the satisfaction of the lifestyle.

The most stressful time for both workers and partners is around transition times, when the worker is preparing to leave and return to site (Gallegos 2006). However, Torkington et al (2011) reported that workers feel most stressed in situations where they are missing family events and celebrations or they are away when a family emergency arises.

Also, the partners at home reported the need for greater emotional support and connection with others in their situation (Clifford, 2009) and have usually developed social networks to assist and provide companionship when the worker is away.

The Education and Health Standing Committee has centred on the emotional and mental pitfalls of FIFO work including fatigue caused by ‘high-compression rosters’ amid reports of nine suicides in a 12-month period to November 2014 (Cox, WA Today, 2014). Concerns have been raised about the ‘system of work’ in the industry, roster structure, hazards and family separation.

The committee in its findings indicated that the prevalence rate of mental health problems among the FIFO workforce is approximately 30 per cent, significantly higher than the national average of 20 per cent. The cohort of people that are employed; 25-44-year-olds, predominantly male, are just the cohort that has the higher incidence of mental health in the community. The four weeks on, one week off is potentially a roster that causes high compression and high fatigue.

An extensive federal parliamentary inquiry into FIFO practices delivered in 2013, which ran for 18 months has provided changes including a variety in FIFO rosters, improvements in mine-site accommodation and employee assistance, including free counselling, buddy systems, health programs and in-room internet to communicate with family. (Henry et al, 2013).

Although subject to mixed opinions, much of what is known about FIFO and its impact has been generated by anecdotal observations. The lack of reliable information in this area was noted by the federal inquiry, which observed that without the pivotal information, there is an inability to address the complex impacts of FIFO on individuals, families and communities.

However, it is clear from the inquiry’s conclusions that there is widespread concern for the health implications of FIFO work and a need for research to inform the government and public at large. In addressing the future of FIFO in WA, it is acknowledged that some degree of FIFO will always be required to service the off-shore and extremely remote resources sites.

Author: Deborah McGee is 27 years old and hails from from Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan. She currently work as an accounts assistant at Meade Potato Company. McGee completed a BA Hons in Law at Letterkenny I.T. (2010) and  M.Sc in Business & Management (Human Resource Management) (2015) at IPA. Between her studies she spent two and a half years travelling and working in Australia where she was exposed to the working arrangement of fly-in fly-out. This was the primary motivation for her dissertation topic combined with the Irish flooding to Australia and entering the mining industry and also having two brothers working in this industry – McGee was intrigued of the effects fly-in-fly-out had on people and the reasons why people decided to enter and continue to live this type of lifestyle. O'RiordanElecAustralia
Long-distance commuters are no longer considered a rare breed; in fact, almost every large organisation has this type of employee among their ranks and their numbers are growing. Long-distance commuting can often provide access to employment opportunities on a wider geographical labour market without forcing people to leave a...