Having a FIFO workforce is one way to address some of the specific challenges posed by remote mining operations. But a FIFO workforce has very particular and important needs. Having fast, reliable network infrastructure is key to addressing some of the associated issues, and enables technology to answer a particularly human problem.
The remoteness of many mining operations means that having a ‘long-distance commuting’ or FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) workforce is unavoidable. Created over 25 years ago by a confluence of rapid growth, lean production methods and labour shortages,1 it’s become an increasingly popular model in new mining and resource developments in Australia.
This trend is projected to continue upward to 20202 – in WA and QLD in particular, even with the expected contractions in the workforce as the cycle swings into the operational phase. But FIFO already make up a large part of the mining workforce now – for example, in WA currently, more than half of employees in the mining sector are FIFO. However, while this type of workforce offers significant benefits to mine operators, such as flexibility, and is a great way to manage the dynamic and fluctuating labour requirements of construction versus operation, it also poses some significant challenges.
These issues have had a spotlight thrust upon them by the media recently 345, bringing them to top of mind for the public, but concerns around the toll of the FIFO arrangement on workers are well known. Research in the area points to a number of negative impacts including increased stress levels and damaging coping mechanisms, low quality relationships and family disruption, and feeling lonely and isolated.
There’s no denying that attracting and retaining this valuable workforce and taking advantage of the flexibility and agility they offer means responding appropriately to their needs – and that includes providing conditions that address the possible negative impacts of the model. Health and safety is of critical importance to mining, and that includes providing programs that aim specifically to protect and bolster mental health.
One of the recommended measures for supporting this workforce is ensuring that they have access to technology that will enable them to access help, and stay connected to their families and support networks. Both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto cite the importance of communications technologies in these efforts.6
Governments too are taking note. The recent WA Parliamentary inquiry into the impact of FIFO work practices on mental health makes a number of recommendations for ensuring compliance with Work Health and Safety practices taking this into account. They even call it out specifically and recommend “that the Minister for Mines and Petroleum ensures the Code of Practice on FIFO work arrangements emphasizes the importance of providing high quality, reliable and accessible communications technology in FIFO accommodation villages.” 7
Nextgen is actively supporting mining, oil and gas companies in this area by providing critical communications and network infrastructure that is of primary importance to these efforts (the North West Cable System is a good example). Having easy access to rich, real time, responsive communications technology can be an invaluable salve to remote workers – and to resource companies looking to retain a valuable asset.