Nonfiction

Digging Deep

27 February 2013

Merran Reed investigates the pains and gains of young people heading down the mines.

A couple of years ago I worked as a flight attendant flying miners to the various mine sites around Western Australia. Places with names like Coyote, Nifty, Area C or (my favourite) Cloudbreak. The other girls and I had a game where we would casually mention to cute boys at bars that we were flight attendants. We called it dropping the “F bomb”. But there was always that doomed moment where the guy would ask which airline you flew for and inevitably you’d lie and say, “Yeah, yeah, I totally work for Qantas.” I guess we didn’t see the glamour or the status in working for a regional charter airline.

Maybe it’s because there is no glamour in flying to airports that consist of red dirt and tin shed terminals. We were always real glad that we got to go straight back home to Perth instead of having to stay in dongas and lay in our own sweat for four weeks straight. (Side note: who the hell decided to name mine site accommodation that, seriously? Dennis the Menace?)

But perhaps the joke was on us, because while we were earning $35,000 a year, our mining buddies were averaging a sweet $2,300 per week. The mining life offers up some mad cash—there’s no doubt about that. But I mean, it’s not easy work: there are 12-hour long shifts, complete isolation from family and friends, it’s ridiculously hot and time on-site comes in four to five week swings. It’s all worth it for the dollars though, right?

Just contrast that against the lifestyle of a uni student: I’ve got this friend, and she was so broke that she joined a bank to get a free cheeseburger. And yeah, okay, that might have been me. And yeah, I might’ve been working full-time when that happened. But the sentiment remains. The number of uni friends I have that own property currently remains set at zero. Full-time student and Fly In-Fly Out (FIFO) worker, Rob Grimsey says the mining sector isn’t for everyone. “If you’re someone that hates outside labouring kind of work, I mean, you’re not going to like it,” he says. It’s tough both physically and mentally. “Obviously the cost of that [working away] becomes really high and so the salary doesn’t make up for it.”

On one of those mega-hot Melbourne days we had recently I heard a child ask their mother, “is this how cookies in the oven feel?” I reckon that’s a pretty accurate way to describe the sweltering heat of WA’s mine sites.

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Rob says, “If you’ve never done it before you couldn’t imagine what it’s like. It gets hot in Perth and you think, ‘I’m at the beach, it’s 40 degrees, and I’m okay with that, so I’ll be alright’. But it’s like 45 degrees, and there’s no wind because you’re at the bottom of a pit and you’ve got to be drinking water constantly. If you’re not drinking like a few litres every hour, honestly, you stop sweating because you’ve lost all your water, even though you’ve drunk like two to three litres in the morning, which isn’t nearly enough.”

“By the end of the day you get home and all your muscles are cramped, you can’t sleep properly and you start becoming delirious.” Rob’s doing his second Bachelor’s degree, this time in psychology. To support himself he works away on the mines as an engineer. His life is crazy hectic. He’s on-site for 13 days straight, working 12-hour shifts, and then does his uni assessments at night. When he’s back in Perth for his eight days off, he’s got to attend classes, and try to make up for the ones he’s missed. “Every tutorial you miss, you lose like two per cent so that’s more work you have to do so you can still get the grades. So it becomes really difficult.”

Ashleigh Fletcher is one of the peeps trying to make it easier for FIFO workers as a health and lifestyle coordinator at a mine site.

“I’m making as much as a chiropractor and I get paid to make the guys happy. We organise activities like bingo, quiz nights and just try to get them to meet other people, keep them from getting homesick.”

“Obviously the way it’s going now, mental health is a massive issue,” she says. Her own well-being concerns aside, the four years working away has allowed Ashleigh to buy a house, invest in shares, and set herself up financially, all at the ripe old age of 26.

Coming from a psychology background, Rob agrees with Ashleigh that mental health is a massive issue up in the mines. “It’s not really a setting where you’d want to have something brewing up and for it to become a big issue later because you haven’t talked about it,” he says. Not-for-profit mental health group R U OK? has set up a program in remote sites to encourage employees exposed to social isolation (not just FIFO workers) to seek help. They assist workers to educate themselves about the mental health risks that can occur when removed from usual support networks.

Rob says, “Every company as far as I’m aware has the program of a helpline you can call. But how useful is that? As you can imagine it doesn’t really seem like the kind of environment where if you did bring something up, that there would be support.”

Ashleigh’s role in part is trying to prevent some of those mental health problems popping up on-site. “They’re talking about building these [mine site] villages like resorts. You’ve got indoor cricket pitches, tennis courts, they’re even talking about installing spas in every single room. Mental health is definitely an issue, but there’s a lot of stuff in place to stop that happening. We try and create a lot of activities that encourage a social atmosphere,” she says.

Ashleigh says that being a health and lifestyle co-ordinator is a career for her now. And why wouldn’t you want to make a profession out of keeping your mining buddies from getting homesick? Especially when that wage affords you the freedom to buy property. Rob is in the final year of his undergraduate psychology degree—he’s going to keep working away in the mines, just growing his nest egg until it becomes obnoxiously large and then perhaps, he’ll begin his Master’s degree.

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