The Journey of the FIFO Soldier
I flew out of Qantas Terminal 3 in Sydney Airport, in transit to the Byrnecut Mine Site owned by the Newcrest Mining Company. This was located in Telfer, in the Pilbara of Western Australia. On the Sunday, I said goodbye to my wife, daughter and 5-month old son. The night before I’d had a fight with my wife, and we weren’t really on speaking terms. As I kissed them all goodbye, I had a sick feeling in my stomach and I felt like I could cry, knowing where I was going and knowing I left on bad terms.
I had not experienced FIFO work since starting the Mental Health Movement in April of 2016. I have worked with 6 mining companies, including Whitehaven, Glencore, New Crest, Rio Tinto, Yan Coal, and Chain Valley, and am also working with Coal Services. I’m always educating, raising awareness, and giving the workers the confidence to ask for help, as well as putting support networks and coping strategies in place to better manage their mental health. I achieve this through the power of story.
The only understanding of FIFO work that I had was through my own research and from listening to stories of people who I knew had worked FIFO. This is what created my perception of what I was travelling into. Knowing this, honestly, I was quite nervous. Really, I was going into the unknown. Doing the induction process online, I was faced with questions of what to do when approached by a dingo, and how do you cope with 55-degree Celsius heat? 2 things I had never experienced. I thought to myself that this was the furthest thing from my reality of back home.
I flew in Sunday night, arriving at Perth Airport. From there, I caught a cab to a hotel in Ascot, where I resided for the night. I tried to listen to an audiobook but was unable to concentrate as I wrestled with the fight I’d had with my wife, wondering how she was, and looked at the iPhone home screen picture of my kids again while holding back the tears. After arriving, I ordered some room service and got my things together for an early flight in the morning from Perth to the Telfer Gold Mine site in the Pilbara of Western Australia. I again arrived at Perth Airport in the pitch black. Looking around as I walked into the airport, I witnessed a sea of high viz work wear and the soldiers of the FIFO work.
I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb, but sucked it up and checked in, keeping my gaze to myself. I wondered what they were all thinking: were they missing their families, friends, and lifestyles, leaving their reality behind? Did they fight with their partner before they left? Did they have issues and adversities they were dealing with? They may have checked in their baggage for their 2-week stint of 12-hour shifts, but no one could see the mental baggage they may be carrying.
We took off from a cool, wet, windy Perth, and would be in the air for just under 2 hours, landing nearly 2000kms from Perth Airport. On the plane ride, I felt you could cut the air with a knife; it was thick with resentment and hostility. Although I understood the sacrifices these men and women were making to support themselves and their families, striving to find their purpose and place in this vast world.
I again closed my eyes and sank into my own reality in my head, creating a picture of what I was flying into so I could prepare myself for my objectives. I landed and departed the plane, walking into the FIFO community of the Telfer Gold Mine site. Everyone was busy in their own world, organising themselves for their 2 weeks on the ground. I felt lost, but I was guided around by a colleague contracted by the same company I was, SANO Health, a champion of a bloke; he also came from a professional sporting background, being a former strength and conditioning coach for the Richmond Tigers AFL club.
We hit it off talking all things sports, sharing ideas, theories and stories of the world we once knew. I got to my cabin, or what they call a DONGA, which was very, very small. It consisted of only a bed, a shower, a toilet, a tiny desk, a small fridge and a small TV. All this was in a 4m x 3m space. (I understand some individuals have nothing in this world and are homeless, but in the context of living conditions, and I have not experienced jail, this was as tight as it gets.) After dropping my stuff off and getting dressed into my uniform of high viz shirt and pants and steel cap work boots, I set off to the meeting point to make my way to the mine site.
As we walked the 1.5kms it would take to be onsite, I glanced down and looked at my boots as I walked through the red dirt of the Pilbara. I remember thinking to myself that, 3 months ago, I was working a job in the professional sporting world, something I had always wanted, and now I was walking the red sands of the Western Australian outback to share my story with the men and women of the FIFO. This realisation gave me a huge sense of fulfilment and reinforced to me that my journey was exactly where I was meant to be.
The first day, I was shown around and introduced to the Byrnecut Safety Staff. They were all great people, and they really welcomed me. I was then given an overview of the safety operations and the objectives they wanted met with the different FIFO crews regarding this mental health initiative.
The schedules of the FIFO workers were organised down to a T, and there was no room for error. There was a massive emphasis on health and safety at this mine, and the Project Manager and Safety Co - coordinator were very accommodating in making sure the mental health presentations took precedence over everything during the tool box talk that was held in the muster room.
The structure of how we would work while we were out there was that I would present for 30 minutes at the start of the tool box talk, then stay back to talk to the crew members that wanted to.
We then set up an email request system for them to book 1 on 1 sessions if they wanted or needed to. These 1 on 1 sessions provided further education, mental health action plans, positive coping strategies and positive mindset techniques. If the crew members needed further support through the EAP (employment assistance program), we would then engage them with that support also.
During the first presentation, I had 98 miners in the muster room all kitted up, ready to start their shift. I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous, and with the environment being 95% male, it was a quite an experience. As I was walking up to present, a worker said to me in a stern voice, “You better hurry the fuck up, we have work to do.”
I shook it off, as I was accustomed to banter from being in the professional sporting world. The first presentation went really well. The fact that I got up and was brutally honest with my story removed all the negative stigma attached to mental health and mental illness. This left every individual in the the room ready for me to give them my 6 best points on how to better manage their mental health.
Every worker was very engaged, giving me solid eye contact. This indicated to me that it really resonated with them, and that what I was speaking about was really sinking in. After the presentation, I had 6 workers come up to me and share their story with me, which gave me great feedback on the impact of the work I was doing out there. The next day, I would go underground with one of the safety supervisors and my new wingman from Sano Health.
This was an unreal experience, as I got to see and understand how the mine worked and operated. I got to see firsthand the working conditions the miners faced and went through day in and day out.
After finishing that shift, off we headed back to the camp. We walked the 1.5kms back, de-briefing the day. We got back to camp and walked into the food hall. It was like how I imagined walking into jail for the first time would be, with everyone looking at you, so I just kept my head down and kept to myself. The food provided out there is really good and the variety is huge. You definitely won’t go hungry, but you can have 2 very different experiences. You can eat healthy and balanced, on one hand, but on the other you can eat not so good, having huge portion sizes and heading to the ice cream and milkshake bar too regularly.
During the trip underground, I felt like I was on the set of the movie Total Recall on the planet Mars. It was dark, wet, hot, and very confined. Although I enjoyed the experience immensely, to do that daily would become very tough at times. The respect I have developed for the FIFO miners and workers is so high, and I would tell each and every one of them that when I came into contact with them.
Understanding the risks, dangers, and impacts of the FIFO work through reading and hearing stories is one aspect, but after seeing it and speaking about it with them, the issues these men and women face became very real.
Being that far away from society, family, friends, and what we call the real world affects you in ways you cannot explain. The shifts that they do of 12 hours on and 12 hours off, getting to work in the dark and working underground all day, and then getting above ground in the dark and not seeing sunlight, affects you mentally and physically in so many different ways. The conditions underground can reach the 60-degree Celsius mark, and dehydration is very easily reached. The risks and dangers of working underground are also very high.
Working these shifts gives them very little time to do anything else other than work, eat and sleep. I worked out that on their 12 hours off, they really only have 9 hours after showering, eating, and getting back to their cabin (donga) from the mine site. I assumed you would want at least 6 – 7 hours of that to be sleep, so really, they only have less than 2 hours to themselves.
Finding the time to exercise can be tough, and being in the mood to socialise can be tough. If you were going through a tough time and had issues and adversities back home, it would be easy to become disengaged and stick to yourself. This self-seclusion is real. How do you explain something to someone else when you don’t understand it yourself? Being in the right positive frame of mind to speak to and make contact with your family could be easier said than done as well.
All these aspects are contributing factors to poor mental health. Having been not speaking to my wife was really hard on me, and this was only the first time I had ever experienced anything like what the FIFO workers go through. However, it did give me a really good understanding of being so isolated and not being able to patch things up in person.
As for the rosters that they work, the majority are 2 weeks on and 1 week off. Some of the workers I spoke to were travelling from New Zealand. These individuals actually lose a full day travelling each way, so really, they are only getting 5 days off instead of 7.
The factors contributing to poor mental health are everywhere in the FIFO work environment; this puts them in the demographic that is at a much higher risk of experiencing mental ill health or mental illness, in particular, suicide.
During the 5 days I was on site, I spoke to over 400 miners over 5 presentations and I did 4 x 12 hour shifts with the safety crew. During that time, I caught up with 17 miners 1 on 1. This was a massive achievement and testament to the work I was doing regarding mental health, and a positive step that the Byrnecut Mining Group had implemented through Sano Health. Having that amount of men put their hand up and seek help is a huge step in the right direction.
Men who are preforming one of the toughest jobs in the world showing real vulnerability and seeking some extra support was something that made me feel like I had achieved something great, and it has fuelled my drive and passion even more to continue and further develop the work myself and Mental Health Movement are already doing.
Waiting at the landing strip at the Telfer airport in the Pilbara, I would watch all the workers as we waited for the plane to land. This plane would bring the next group of FIFO workers in to the site, and would take us all back to Perth.
While I waited at the tiny makeshift airport, I watched all the FIFO miners eagerly Face Time their families, and the smiles on their faces were electric. I also watched the workers interact in their conversations; this made me smile, as I could see in their eyes a sense of relief and happiness. They had punched out the last 14 days of 12-hour shifts on and 12 hours off, so now they had the next 7 days of freedom.
As the new crew of FIFO workers disembarked the plane, they made their way through the makeshift airport where we were waiting. The look on their faces and the aura they possessed was almost the polar opposite of the crew I was leaving with. This is just an observation of mine. This made me understand the duality in thoughts and feelings these FIFO workers must face. A roller coaster of emotion and thought, all contributing factors to disrupting their mental health.
After we boarded the plane, shortly after take-off, the workers were asleep, catching up on the valuable sleep they were deprived of from the previous 2 weeks. I felt the difference in atmosphere on the plane from the way over. I just kept to myself, doing some follow up work.
When I landed and walked to the baggage claim, I switched aeroplane mode off on my phone. As I walked, my emails came through, and I scrolled through them, the first 4 being junk mail. The next was an email from a wife of one of the FIFO workers.
She wrote the email to thank me for sharing my story and getting her husband to talk about the presentation and other things that I will not detail. This brought a quiet tear to my eyes. The fact that the work I had done had had such an impact, not just on the FIFO workers, but on the families also, has fuelled my fire even more and has reinforced what I’ve always known and believed.
This is my ripple affect. Something I believe, deep inside me, can make a huge difference. If we can start that conversation using the power of story and give others the confidence to talk about their feelings and struggles and ask for support, instead of doing it all on their own, we can drive change.
It needs to start in our friendship circles, our families, our work environments. This will grow to our towns, communities, cities and cultures.
This is the change the mental health space needs, and the change that Mental Health Movement will drive 1 presentation, 1 conversation at a time.
By Dan Hunt