Recent tragedies have put the spotlight on FIFO workers’ vulnerability to stress, and on what employers should be doing about it.
Tragic stories involving fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers, including recent suicides, have raised questions about what can be done and what responsibilities employers have towards such workers.
Health and safety risk
In January, the ABC reported a spate of suicides in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Anecdotally, we know employers are seeing increasing numbers of stress claims, including more extreme claims involving attempted suicide and sexual assault, some of which have the potential to be regarded as work-related.
Workplace stress can give rise to work-related injuries and may lead to protracted and costly legal action such as:
- WorkCover applications seeking statutory entitlements.
- Common law actions seeking damages (for example, staff claiming that their injury was caused by their employer’s negligence); and
- Adverse action claims.
The fatigue caused by working what can sometimes be punishing FIFO rosters is a known health and safety risk.
A recent matter we were involved in showed how employers can (sometimes inadvertently) worsen an employee’s stress levels. A FIFO worker on a demanding roster had attempted suicide. On returning to work after one week’s rest, he was handed what he regarded as an even tougher roster than he previously had. The employer then gave him a choice: work the roster or leave.
Key issues to consider
Such approaches make it difficult for employers to prove they’ve taken reasonable steps to accommodate stressed workers.
Here are some of the key issues employers must consider.
Communication: Where employers are aware that a FIFO worker is struggling with mental illness exacerbated by their roster, they should consult and communicate with the employee, rehabilitation providers and medical experts, and the union (if involved). Where applicable, employers may also need to notify their insurer.
Understanding the illness or injury: Employers have a duty of care to ensure an employee’s health and safety, and that of their colleagues. It’s not unreasonable to ask for more information about the medical condition an employee is suffering from. Understanding the true nature of the illness or injury is not just about covering yourself, it’s about providing a best way forward for all parties.
Respecting privacy and confidentiality: FIFO workers in particular worry about the stigma that may result from stress claims. They fear it will follow them if they change roles, but stay in the industry. If an employer is aware an employee is suffering from a stress-related issue, then respecting the employee’s privacy and confidentiality is important. Employers must consider their record-keeping around stress claims to ensure confidentiality. This must be balanced against the responsibility to try to reduce the stigma of stress conditions and to educate the workforce about mental illness.
Exploring reasonable adjustments: Are there any adjustments that can be made to accommodate the employee? Rostering has emerged as a key issue in stress claims made by FIFO workers. Employers who try to accommodate stressed employees by placing them on a less intensive roster would be making a “reasonable adjustment”.
If an adjustment is “reasonable” (which may involve a cost benefit analysis), it should be made. But if the adjustment imposes an unjustifiable hardship on the employer, it need not be made. For example, an interstate FIFO worker requesting to work only Monday to Friday and to return home every weekend.
This article originally appeared in HRM magazine’s April 2019 edition.
Have a question about HR? Access online HR resource AHRI:ASSIST for information sheets, guidelines and templates on different HR topics. Exclusive to AHRI members.