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Lack of sleep reduces FIFO workers’ alertness by 20 per cent on mine sites, study finds

Key points:

  • The study found FIFO workers were “barely scraping” the threshold for adequate rest on days off, let alone days on shift
  • Lack of rest reduces workers’ alertness on mine sites by 20 per cent across a 14 day swing, according to the study
  • Experts say a healthy routine is key to good sleep for all shift workers

Western Australia’s fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers are not getting enough rest, according to scientists behind the world’s largest study of its kind.

Edith Cowan University researchers tracked the sleep of 88 FIFO workers and found most were “barely scraping” the threshold for adequate rest on days off, let alone days on shift.

“As humans, we require about seven to nine hours of sleep per night,” adjunct associate professor Ian Dunican said.

“People are getting approximately six hours of sleep working [12 hour] day shifts, five and a half after [12 hour] night shifts,” he said.

According to the study, that lack of rest reduced workers’ alertness on mine sites by 20 per cent across a 14 day swing — and days off didn’t help.

“We thought that days off would be making up for the sleep debt incurred over the previous two weeks, but they’re only getting an average of about seven hours and 10 minutes — so just barely scraping into that green zone of adequate sleep,” Dr Dunican said.

Optimising restful rosters

Albany local Patrick McLennan has been navigating the fickle world of FIFO sleep for 20 years and has worked a range of roster systems.

He said good rest depended on strict routine and consistent rosters.

“The best one that I’ve come across is two weeks on, two weeks off,” he said.

“You just get on there and do your two weeks, go home — and while you’re on that shift, you work, either full-time day shift or full-time night shift,” Mr McLenann said.

“[There was] no juggling to try and manage your roster and your sleep and all the rest of it.

“An even-time roster solves all the dramas about flights, beds and the like.”

Dr Dunican agreed consistency was key to good sleep, but said there was no perfect roster.

“I wish there was, then I would sleep on a bed of money,” he joked.

But he said emerging research pointed to a promising system: a week of day shift, a week off, a week of nights, a week off.

“It’s better from an employee satisfaction perspective … it basically lessens the time at work,” he said.

“But with that comes a little bit less cash, as opposed to working a two [on] and one [off] roster, so people don’t make as much money.

“It also increases costs for companies as well [which] have to have more flights, more accommodation and more transportation.”

Routine key for all shift workers

For Mr McLennan, a good roster goes hand in hand with a good personal routine on site.

“[It’s better to] stay in a routine [even on night shift] … you wake up at three in the afternoon, get a couple hours of sunlight, to boost your batteries, do some exercise” he said.

“If you become a lounge lizard, you will not be able to cope with night shifts.

“Stay within a routine, regular diet, no alcohol.”

Dr Dunican backed that system, and said it could be applied to anyone working in shifts — not just in the resources sector.

“There’s lots of incorrect strategies happening out there, where people consume alcohol, hazardous levels, to try to fall asleep, eat the wrong food, and so on … so there’s a lot more we can do on individual education as well,” he said.

Shifting industry focus

According to Dr Dunican, the mining industry was starting to take sleep seriously, but he said more work was needed to protect the sleep health of workers in WA’s number-one sector.

His said the ECU study was the largest of its kind in the world — but it still had a relatively small sample size.

“I’ve been working around mining for the last 20 years and I think it’s quite poor really that we haven’t done more in this space,” he said.

A Chamber of Minerals and Energy spokesperson said workers’ health was a priority for the industry.

“Mining and resources sector companies provide a variety of roster options, allowing sufficient time for rest, recovery and recreation,” the chamber said.

“They additionally make rosters and working shifts as family and people-friendly as possible.”


Posted 30 Jan 2023. Written by By Louise MiolinAndrew Collins, and Samantha Goerling.