Article: Toward better psychosocial safety in mining

For decades, the Australian mining sector has been under the scrutiny of regulators, industry experts, and the public due to the inherent physical hazards present in mining operations. The demanding nature of the work, the use of heavy machinery, and the exposure to hazardous substances have rightfully commanded attention and efforts to ensure worker safety. However, as our understanding of workplace health and safety has evolved, so too has the recognition of the significance of psychosocial hazards and risks in the mining industry.

Factors such as long working hours, isolation, shift work, high job demands, and organisational culture have been recognized as potential sources of stress, leading to adverse and often dangerous effects on the mental and emotional well-being of employees.

In response to growing recognition, mining companies have begun implementing strategies to identify, assess, and mitigate psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Ahead of Quest Event’s Women in Mining Summit 2024 (23-25 July, Brisbane), we spoke with Helen Degeling, Project Acquisition Manager at Cobalt Blue Holdings, Jessica Pereira, Principal – Health & Hygiene at Whitehaven Coal, and Kanae Dyas, Workplace Support Manager at Anglo American to learn more.

How can mining companies identify and mitigate psychosocial hazards to ensure a safe and mentally healthy work environment?

Self-described “geeky geologist” Helen Degeling believes good communication pathways, trust in the workplace, and trust in senior leaders are essential tools to combat psychosocial hazards.

“This is true of any workplace, but especially true on remote mine sites where people, including women, can feel trapped and isolated”, she says. “Building trust with a workforce requires those in a position of responsibility to take concerns and complaints seriously, and for those in vulnerable positions to understand their bravery isn't in vain, and their positions are secure. Breaking through ingrained remote workplace cultures is difficult, and sustained effort is required at all levels.”

Employers have a positive duty to ensure their people are safe at work and go home safely – ensuring that psychosocial hazards are managed to support the psychological health and safety of their workforce. Anglo American’s Kanae Dyas stresses the importance of formalising the commitment to psychological health and safety through health and safety strategies, policies, risk management, reporting, support and adhering to legislative requirements where applicable. She also warns against the dangers of an overly process driven and heavily complicated compliance approach.

“There is an importance for a systematic risk-based approach, however the key is not to become so transactional as to tick a box for compliance and lose the whole-person, people-centric approach”, Dyas says. “Managing psychosocial hazards can be complex. A great deal of experience, care, respect and safety is required with holistic approaches to include mental health and wellbeing to centre voices and to respect and protect lived experiences. We need to ensure the very systems and approaches applied are not placing people at further harm and disempowering them; hence building capability of the organisation and leaders with training, trauma-informed practice, demonstrable psychological and cultural safety, coupled with proven health and wellbeing strategies and RTW processes. This is where the soft skills with EQ, Care and Respect are equally critical with qualified stakeholders – People First.”

“An important component often overlooked are the risks to marginalised people”, continues Dyas. “More needs to be done by way of Cultural Safety and inclusive safe work practices to address intersectionality particularly for First Nations employees, LGBTIQA+ people, Culturally and Racially Marginalised people and People with Disability who experience higher rates of bullying, discrimination and harassment with greater risk of mental health impacts and suicide. Therefore, additional risk-based protective factors based on inclusion, prevention and early intervention are critical to prevent physical harm, psychological injuries and occupational suicide for a diverse workforce.”

Jessica Pereira describes the work Whitehaven Coal has done to identify, assess, control and reduce psychosocial hazards in its workplaces through its Psychosocial Hazard Management framework. “This framework is embedded within relevant business procedures and protocols, and is dynamic, iterative and responsive to change”, says Pereira. “To provide an effective and early response, it is important for psychosocial hazards reported by workers to be investigated and corrective actions implemented. At Whitehaven, we aim to support and encourage the reporting of psychosocial hazards by treating all reports of psychosocial hazards seriously and appropriately.”

Some of the important aspects of this framework include:

  • Providing an approved process to report psychosocial hazards which protects anonymity
  • Regularly discussing psychosocial hazards with the workforce
  • Defining acceptable standards of behaviour (linked to organisational values)
  • Ensuring those who make reports are not victimised
  • Educating key workers (e.g. supervisors, managers, contact persons and HSRs)
  • Ensuring processes and systems for reporting and responding are appropriate, transparent and well-understood

What psychosocial hazards are at a higher level of risk in FIFO roles?

Pereira points to research revealing that, even when taking account of associated risk factors such as age and education, there is a greater risk of mental ill health amongst workers operating under FIFO work arrangements. It has been reported by the WA government that up to one-third of FIFO workers experience high or very high levels of psychological distress.

“FIFO work arrangements, such as remote and isolated work, lack of control over aspects of accommodation arrangements, lengthy travel arrangements, loneliness, isolation, stigma, bullying and perceived lack of autonomy are all psychosocial hazards associated with the greater risk of suicide in FIFO workers”, Pereira says. “Fatigue, alcohol and drug use also contribute to psychosocial hazards in the FIFO workforce.”

Degeling agrees: “The long days, extreme physical environments and very remote locations can contribute to exacerbation of existing mental health problems in workers, or the evolution of mental health issues that may otherwise have been overcome in a less extreme environment. Combine these factors with an inability to escape the physical environment or the people you work with … and many may feel as though they have nowhere to go. The culture of physical toughness, the 'boys' club' and drinking that often accompanies these environments contributes to an unwillingness to report issues or seek help.”

Dyas notes the psychosocial hazards that tend to be more frequent in FIFO jobs are working in remote and isolated roles/locations, poor support, work demands, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination including violent behaviours and traumatic events. “We need to be mindful that there are both biopsychosocial factors and psychosocial factors that impact the experience of a FIFO worker and their mental health. These hazards and factors are not dissimilar in some industries with high workloads, long hours and working remotely. When in isolated environments and roles that are not carefully monitored with appropriate support and controls in place, it can expose the worker to greater risk; particularly regarding bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. Where alcohol and fatigue are present this can compound the risks. When working FIFO it’s ensuring the right controls are in place with appropriate and accessible support, the workforce and leaders are provided with education and training. Villages and sites have relevant security and risk management measures in place. It’s importantly about creating an environment of connectedness that supports their employee experience, health, safety and wellbeing in a positive way.”

What needs to be done from a psychosocial safety perspective to attract and retain more women to the sector?

“Psychological Safety is not the singular issue although one of many in attracting and retaining women in our industry”, comments Dyas. “It is far more complex and requires a solid understanding of the barriers women and marginalised people face and a strong commitment backed by action to proactively overcome these challenges. We need to be mindful that our approaches are not a form of performative allyship. Psychological and cultural safety need to be seen and felt, with the language aligning to actions. This builds credibility, confidence and trust. It requires receiving challenging information, putting aside biases and changing systems, symbols and behaviours that may be the barriers to attraction and retention.”

“Comprehensive attraction and retention strategies with intersectional psychosocial management provides safe, inclusive and equitable environments for women and all people to thrive, not just survive”, continues Dyas. “This includes definable pathways for women and marginalised people in their career development and progression, mentoring and sponsoring programs, women leadership programs where women are in decision making roles that influence meaningful change, being an active ally and upstander to support women when they do speak up including supporting women’s health and safety. Importantly, the focus should also be on closing the gender pay gap.”

“Having women in visible leadership roles goes a long way to both attracting and retaining women into more junior positions”, says Degeling. “You can't be what you can't see. Visible leadership roles should include not just executives, but mine site management, shift supervisors and similar, where women see a tangible avenue of direct support, not just the untouchable token female board member or corporate office professional. Appropriate leadership and mental health safety training for both women and men in leadership and management positions is also important.”

How can we shift from reactive responses to early intervention and prevention strategies in regards to psychosocial risk?

For Degeling, it’s all about trust. “People don't come forward to talk about what's happening to them (or around them) if they don't trust the system, or the people around them in managerial or decision-making roles. Changing this perception, and the cultural belief that talking about mental health, unwanted advances, bullying or other scenarios is ‘weak’, requires constant, ongoing effort and commitment on the part of mining companies”, she says. “It can't be a box-ticking exercise, nor can it be solely a top-down approach. We have seen this kind of change in the Australian mining industry in the past with the adoption of widespread and well-embedded [physical] safety practises throughout every operation. The same can be done for psychological safety, but requires significant cultural change.”

Dyas calls for an integrated and multipronged approach backed with collective action to see real change. “This includes promoting awareness, building capability and accountability of the organisation, leaders and workforce to actively identify hazards and implement protective factors early. Be guided by industry research, your workforce and internal data to develop protective factors. Simultaneously, we need to ensure there are relevant systems in place to support leaders and the workforce in managing these hazards and risks”, she adds.

In response to this, the award-winning Anglo American Workplace Support Program was developed by Dyas. It is a comprehensive psychosocial risk management program aligned to the Code of Practice with an Early Intervention Response TARPS coupled with deidentified reporting and analytics. The program includes a defined model of training for leaders and workforce in both psychosocial hazards, mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention to actively identify, prevent and intervene as part of the company’s harm prevention response. It includes intersectional approaches for demographics at risk with cultural safety. In addition to Peer Support Groups.  In conjunction, a first of its kind in industry, the award-winning Workplace Support Unit was developed to support the workforce in Psychosocial hazards, bullying, harassment and discrimination to include Domestic Violence. The Support Unit provides end to end early intervention, prevention, support, recovery and guidance underpinned by trauma informed care with cultural and psychological safety.  The program she developed received awards at the QMIHS Conference and AREEA Health Awards in 2023 and most recently, Dyas received the QRC WIMARQ I&D Champion and I&D Excellence Program Awards.

Whitehaven’s Jessica Pereira also advocates for a holistic and multipronged approach, which underpins the company’s Psychosocial Hazard Management framework and supporting wellbeing programs, standards, processes, training, and education. Many of the incentives that companies bundle under the heading of “wellbeing” provide crucial support in terms of psychosocial safety, including programs to support alcohol and drug abuse, fatigue risk management systems, parental leave policies, flexible working arrangements, mental health leadership training, early intervention programs for illness and injuries, and access to care for workers suffering acute mental stress in the workplace.

Can you describe any effective programs you’ve seen that have promoted mental health awareness among mining sector workers? What made them successful?

“It's been over a decade since I worked directly on a mine site on a FIFO roster”, says Degeling, “so I couldn't point to a mental health awareness program that I experienced because there weren't any! However, I know at the time that having a strong female network around me was important. I also found as a woman in a managerial role that both men and women came to me with their 'emotional' problems rather than going to male managers – I put that down to the perception of women being more empathetic and caring.”

Both Whitehaven Coal and Anglo American have formal programs to promote mental health awareness.

“We have a holistic wellbeing program known as The Complete Miner”, explains Whitehaven’s Jessica Pereira, which aims to build awareness and competence in positive thoughts, behaviours, attitudes and strategies to promote a physically and psychologically healthy workforce. This program also offers coaching sessions with psychologists to assist people to set meaningful goals, achieve these goals and adopt positive coping strategies. The program rewards participants with $250 per annum towards their wellbeing, and includes online, evidence-based content delivered over 12 modules every 2-3 months, coaching sessions to set goals, achieve success and adopt positive coping strategies, and keynote presentations from mental health experts.”

“The Complete Miner is successful because it’s optional, easy to engage with and participate in, and rewards active participation with monetary vouchers to support engaging in wellbeing activities like gym memberships, nutrition, relaxation and self-care,” Pereira says.

In addition, Mates in Mining is a peer support program for suicide prevention. “This inclusive program features a lot of education and empowerment for the workforce, breaks down the stigma of mental ill-health and suicide, and makes it clear what your responsibility is to support your co-workers when they are experiencing a tough time,” Pereira adds.

Over the course of her career, Dyas has developed and led several global mental health, suicide prevention, wellbeing and psychosocial management programs with positive outcomes. “Anglo American’s Workplace Support Program is an example of one of these programs based on early intervention, prevention, support and recovery with trauma informed practice with the Workplace Support Program and Workplace Support Unit.

“There are several factors that contribute to success”, Dyas says. “Programs need to be holistic, evidence-based, risk-based, agile and measurable to ensure they are meeting their intended purpose where leaders and workforce see the impacts and benefits to their health and safety, performance and workplace culture. They need to be relevant with sustainable outcomes, aligned to a health and safety strategy with critical stakeholders who have the expertise to inform, influence and drive safe work practices. Importantly, it requires a collective commitment not just from the workforce but from leadership accountability in embedding safe and inclusive workplaces. Trauma informed practice with cultural and psychological safety is a critical part of these programs to meet the diverse needs of our industry’s workforce. Care, Safety and Respect underpins this.”

Interested in learning more about psychosocial safety in mining? Don’t miss the keynote presentations, panel sessions and other discussions with thought leaders at the upcoming Women in Mining Summit 2024 from 23-25 July. Learn more. 

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.