02 May 2019

WA's new Code of Practice shines spotlight on FIFO mental health

By Saul Harben, Olivia Barns

Employers in the resources and construction sectors in Western Australia should review their risk management processes in light of the recent Code of Practice.

The typical resources fly-in fly-out (FIFO) worker sits in the highest risk demographic for mental illness and suicide.  A 2018 report conducted by Curtin University found that 33% of FIFO workers experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, compared to 17% of non-FIFO workers.  Given this, workplaces with FIFO workers have a very strong reason to be alert to the risks to mental health and to ensure compliance with safety and health standards. The recent Code of Practice released by the State Government of Western Australia on 2 April 2019 is an important resource for running the rule over their WHS.

How the Code of Practice fits into your WHS responsibilities

The Code provides practical guidance on how to comply with the legal standards imposed by occupational safety and health laws.  Specifically, the Code encourages workplaces to adopt risk management processes that target the identification, management and control of workplace risks to the mental health of FIFO workers.

While it is not legally binding, the Code is admissible in court.  This means that should your workplace find itself the subject of legal proceedings, the Code can be used an exemplar of best practice which can justify non-compliance or what would have been "reasonably practicable" in the circumstances. 

The recommendations contained in the Code do not represent the only acceptable means of achieving a certain outcome.  Where alternative approaches achieve the same or better results, this will satisfy the legal standards.

Ultimately, by complying with the recommendations within the Code, employers can look after the mental health of their employees while continuing to comply with safety and health standards.

Workplaces will likely have risk management systems in place already.  Despite this, employers should review their current practices alongside the Code to ensure they are meeting their legal requirements and achieving the best results. 

The Code encourages employers to implement a four-stage risk management process. 

Identifying hazards

Identification of all foreseeable hazards and risk factors can be achieved by reviewing the company's organisational structure ie. lines of reporting, inspecting the physical conditions of the workplace and consulting with the workforce through safety and health representatives, focus groups and surveys.

Assessing the risk

Assessment involves considering what could happen if a worker is exposed to the identified risk.  This process clarifies questions such as who might be exposed, the sources of risk and their severity, whether the current controls are adequate or whether additional measures are required and how urgently action is needed.

Controlling the risk

Controls should be tailored to the specific risk.  The Code encourages three types of controls: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Primary controls are the most effective and reliable because they eliminate the risks and hazards before they appear.  An example may be education and training or clearly defined job roles.

Secondary controls are used to intervene and reduce harm when hazards are already present. These can include adjusting workload or encouraging employees to seek counselling assistance.

Finally, tertiary controls are particularly concerned with the treatment of a psychological injury and are brought in after harm has been caused.

Monitoring and review

Employers should monitor and review the controls implemented.  Reviewing data will assist in the identification process of new hazards, and provide an opportunity to learn from previous steps taken.

Practical tips in the Code of Practice

Included in the Code are a few specific recommendations that can assist in assessing risks. These include, where practicable:

  • incorporating elements of autonomy and variety into tasks to support wellbeing;
  • ensuring that work and travel rosters allow sufficient time for rest, recovery and recreation to combat fatigue and encourage socialisation;
  • shorter, even rosters such as one week on, one week off or eight days on, six days off;
  • creating the flexibility to allow workers to communicate with family and friends throughout the day, even when working remotely; and
  • providing predictable and consistent accommodation arrangements to limit the stress and anxiety of mid-roster accommodation changes.

Using the Code of Practice

Employers have a duty of care to manage risks associated with the exposure to hazards at work.  Aside from ensuring the safety of employees, employers can also achieve business-related benefits, such as:

  • decreasing disruptions and costs resulting from work-related harm;
  • reducing worker turnover and absenteeism;
  • reducing work-related injuries, illness and lost time;
  • gaining a reputation as an employer who supports and respects its' workforce; and
  • improving performance and productivity.

We recommend that employers review the recommendations outlined in the Code not only to safeguard the wellbeing of their employees, but to also achieve those business benefits. If you'd like any help in checking the health of your own organisation, please contact us.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.