Death By Site
8th September 2014
In Engineering there’s a branch or sub-discipline referred to as "Construction" and an industry built around it loosly called the Construction Industry. When I walk down a city street where normal people see a nice new building, I see the scaffolds long since removed, the site sheds hung precariously above and around the site, the hi-vis clothing, hard hats and steel-cap boots on the people that built it.
Less visible to normal people is the electricity we use every day, that powers the trains, our lights and the TV. Carried by wires from far away and in my country at least for some time now, from a place near a coal mine, way out west where the rain don’t fall. Places where previously only farmers looking for cheap land would consider, Turns OutTM that vast reserves of Coal, it’s Coal-Seam Gas, Iron Ore or Bauxite are buried deep below the surface, waiting to be extracted. New mines, new gas plants, compression facilities, more construction driven by mineral extraction.
In the construction industry you understand very early on that if you want a job, you have to go to wherever the work is. The vast majority of people are attracted to the bright lights and conveniences of city life. Unless you are in the construction industry in the city, you’re constructing something in the middle of nowhere: especially if it’s mining related where the jobs currently are in Australia in construction. Whenever the commute to/from site extends beyond several hours in this modern age, we tend to catch a plane and fly in, fly out (FIFO)1.
When the demand is high the salaries skyrocket and lure people away from their city-bliss. Chasing dollars we embrace the FIFO lifestyle which for some projects I have seen from the outside can be 28 days on, 9 days off and 2 of those 9 days off are spent travelling home (presumably). More common in the industry where I live at the moment are 21 days on, 7 days off. Even this is nothing compared to off-shore operations where the cost of extraction from an oil platform is so high that it’s usually 3 to 6 months at a time.
These cycles are sometimes referred to as rotations but more commonly as "swings." Time on site is measured by the number of swings you’ve completed and you’re often asked: "where are you in your swing?" meaning, how long until home time? Swings have a large number of hidden problems that aren’t obvious at first.
Changeover: Handling the off-time is the first issue. No longer can one person be "site supervisor" for example, there needs to be two people which means two contact numbers, email addresses or shared ones at least. You spoke to Person A when they were at the end of their swing but did the message get through to Person B whose swing just started? The "other person" is usually referred to as your "back to back" or "b2b" for short. Also with changeover and overlap, imagine a Monday that lasts for two to three days. When you’re on a long swing it takes days to get caught up on what you missed when you were away and these are the danger times when accidents and ommissions tend to be more frequent. Productivity drops significantly during changeover as everyone finds their feets and hands-over what they were working on.
Forgetting Frustration: You jump on the plane, arrive on site and realise you’ve left something you needed at home. Enjoy three weeks of frustration as you pine for it and kick yourself. If you’re lucky you could contact someone about to start their swing and get them to bring it with them (maybe) but if not, you’re in the middle of nowhere. Better get used to living without that item for a while. Hope it wasn’t too important. That leads many people to keep an on-site locker box of sorts to keep the vast majority of their little items, things they use exclusively on site such that there is less to remember. Some sites are organised and you’re assigned a lockable locker, but many aren’t. In those cases, just don’t leave your valuables there.
Mind on the Job: As the end of your swing approaches you think almost exclusively about going home. That only leaves a small fraction of your mind on the job. That’s when accidents happen. Safety culture has had to become so much stronger in FIFO situations to combat this problem and keep safety at the forefront of peoples minds.
Relationship Killer: What follows is my personal experience and obviously this will vary from person to person. I’d been promoted to Senior Engineer, pay rise, more responsibilities, and the company had landed two back to back contracts in Townsville, which is a 1.5hr flight away from home, two flights in and out of Brisbane a day. Not bad by remote standards and in fact, Townsville is the largest city outside of the South-East of my home state of Queensland (still on the small side at 90k people). But it may as well have been the moon so far as my family were concerned. I was away never longer than a week at a time and home for weekends2. This is how a typical week away would unfold, conversing with my wife, from her perspective3.
- Day 1: Everything’s fine. Kids are being, well, kids. The "man task" that needs doing can wait until you get back.
- Day 2: I miss you. The kids miss you. House is a mess but I don’t care at this point. When are you coming home?
- Day 3: I’m glad you’re having a good time away because I’m not. These kids are doing my head in. We don’t need the money I need you here. That unfinished "man task" is driving me crazy.
- Day 4: You’re never here. It feels like I’m a single parent. I didn’t sign up for this. Why am I doing this?
- Day 5: Thank god you’re coming home today. I am so over this. I know we need this job but surely there are other jobs closer to home?
It should come as no surprise that after a few years of this on and off my marriage was under a heavy strain and I wasn’t even on anything longer than a 5 day swing. I’ve worked with people that have been through much tougher FIFO swings than my experience. Perhaps there are some couples that can handle that sort of separation. Perhaps it’s harder when younger children are thrown in the mix. For those that suggest there needs to be more support or understanding to them I’d say: you try juggling three children under 6 years old by yourself each week. It is being a single parent and it’s not easy.
It really doesn’t matter what other people might think: I love her and my children, I could see the end result and it wasn’t working, so I got out and changed jobs. Things recovered and life returned to normal. For many people, they don’t address it and keep plodding along then the wheels fall off and their relationship ends. I’ve watched it happen to my workmates. Make no mistake: statistically speaking most relationships you enter before taking up a FIFO job will be placed under significant stress as a direct result, no matter how strong you think your relationship is. Be under no illusions.
Suicide: Statistics clearly show that FIFO workers have double the national average suicide rate in Australia. Whilst there are many different reasons people take their own lives the most clear paths down that road I can see based on my own observations are as follows.
- Younger people with either young or no children are drawn in by the money. They get used to the money and find it difficult to go back to lower paying city jobs. They then become "trapped" by the lifestyle. The old joke in the mining industry is "It’s harder to get out of the mining industry than to get into it…" After a while they realise they’ve allowed themselves to become trapped in the lifestyle with no easy way to get out again and that is all their life becomes.
- The reason they went to site to earn money to help their growing families financial needs is taken away from them as their relationship falls apart and they lose their family. With that motivation gone, what else is left?
- Being on remote sites is mentally similar to imprisonment. There is only one flight out sometimes a month apart. You feel like there is no way out. Talking to loved ones on the phone becomes painful when you hear about things you would normally help them to handle but currently can’t. You feel helpless. You feel powerless. You feel trapped.
There’s a saying in the industry, "this is a young mans game" meaning to infer unattached with minimal connections to family. Whilst it’s not meant to be gender specific, men are typically drawn to these occupations for reasons I can’t honestly fathom and last time I checked, I’m a man. Why is it then that I see just as many older men at these sites? I honestly believe that people become caught up in the lifestyle. Going from one remote construction project to the next, in an endless site-based daze. One night at dinner in the mess hall, a typical night, let’s go around the table: Divorced, divorced, middle-aged man never married, kids grown up and left home, divorced, young man never married, third marriage and so on4.
It’s a story of broken hearts and broken promises in pursuit of the dollar and whilst the work itself can be rewarding, the majority of people I’ve spoken to just shrug off the negatives and get back to work.
I don’t want to be that person. I’ve tried so very hard to stay close to home and whilst I haven’t always achieved it and it’s been a constant battle to stay out of. Yes I’ve given up some opportunities, lots of extra money and some experiences but I don’t want to end up like so many I’ve seen. Perhaps it wouldn’t quite end with death by site but rather an emotional crippling. It’s not about "man-ning up" and getting on with it, it’s about understanding what matters to you. Some would say they have no choice, but if you look hard enough, there is always a choice. You mightn’t like the alternatives but the choice exists.
And so we return to those things we take for granted: the buildings, the TV and the Light Bulbs. For those that look at a light bulb and think, "it’s glowing" I don’t only see that. I think, how many people have given up so much of their lives to get the coal or gas to drive the generator to power that stupid light bulb?
Then I turn it off.
No, not a First-In First-Out buffer you software people…Geez… ↩
During the construction of Horseshoe Bay STP I was the weekend relief guy to give the primary site programmer a break. This was only for a few weeks and I had days off in Brisbane during the week. ↩
My wife has reviewed the follow sub-section and says it accurately reflects her feelings on the subject matter. ↩
That’s actually the result of a conversation I overheard just last week on site in the mess hall at the adjacent table. It was in response to a young sparky announcing he’s getting married in three months time. ↩