Roughneck and Miner the stories of FIFO workers in Australia and Norway

By TONE SKREDDERBAKKEN

During your life you spend 25 years sleeping, 10 years working, 4 years driving a car, and 5 years sitting at a desk as an office worker . An Australian FIFO worker spends fortnightly 168 hours working, while spending annually 6 months not working. For Mike Roberts it was a change of lifestyle when he chose to switch job. For Vegar Midtgård working in the North sea, he served on the ability to readjust his physique and sleeping pattern for his position as offshore roughneck.

It is common knowledge that fly-in fly-out work is well paid, but is it worth the cost in the long run? I have spoken with two Australian FIFO workers and one Norwegian offshore roughneck, sharing their stories and personal experience of choosing a flexible yet stressful and often  dangerous job.

Billy Verishine is a consultant and company man whose job is to supervise the ongoing of completing and repairing at the rig in the Queensland area section. He is the link between the oil company and the contractor which is a rig on site. His job is to make sure that they do all the things that they want them to do and direct them on how they want things done. Also that they are doing it safely and following the procedures they are obliged to in their contract.

His experience on the rig has been far better than expected. He tells me his schedule from 5am to 6pm, 7 days a week for 2 weeks and then get two weeks off, is suitable for a single man who wants to travel around with no wish for an ordinary working schedule. ‘When I’m off I travel quite a bit. I don’t really have a home. I just got back from Istanbul, which was really good. The next days off  I’m going to Bali for 6 days,’ he says.

Long days and tiresome shifts at the rig, with little or no contact with the outside world while working, many people will think it is a job for a man or a woman without family or anyone who tie them to a home. ‘I would still be inclined to say that it is a single mans profession unless thats what the guy’s been doing all his life. If you’ve been in trucking all your life then your partners used to it,’ says Mike Roberts. It is unimaginable for many to spend two weeks away from their newborn child, yet many of the FIFO and offshore workers seems to be content with the fact that they can ‘catch up’ with family pursuits when they are off.

The mining industry is important to Australia for the reason of bringing billions of dollars of export income. It also provides work for over 750,000 Australians and plays a crucial part in supporting both small and large communities across the country. Mike Roberts, an Australian family man working as a trucker on the rig in the Queensland sector, is one of many Australians who made the choice of dedicating a career in the Australian mining and drilling industry. ‘I used to work in construction, and the comparison difference is amazing. Not only am I getting more money than I did before but instead  of coming home every night just worn out and tired, trying to concentrate on what the girls and my wife are talking about or have a decent two way conversation. I was always up and gone before they got up in the morning, and sometimes working two or three weekend hours of every fortnight as well. We found that now that I am doing this hitch I might be away for two weeks, but I’ve got a full two weeks at home’, says Roberts.

In relation to both mining and oil industry there has been many reports and articles discussing the health and safety of fly-in fly-out workers. Two weeks constant work with twelve hour shifts sounds quite inhumane to many people used to nine to five work with every weekend off. However, Australian miners doesn’t seem to mind the long days on the rigs when they see what they get in return.

Verishine says it is surprising that FIFO workers have the reputation of having drinking problems, using violence and abusive behavior and assumes it is a based on happening only concerning a small number of miners. ‘When I come out to work were not allowed to drink or anything like that. It is good for my health. We have a gym out here where I take a run and work out everyday. I’m getting used to get up early and it is pretty good’, he says.

‘When working in civil construction, they just give you three days at home in every out of every ten, and that’s all year long. After ten days on the road you are not in any sort of mood or mindset to have any sort of conversation with anybody. And more comparable is the money. I think the balance is a lot better than any regular job. I find it very hard to go back to a monday to saturday job now and at the same time I would be cutting my pay too. If you weigh everything up together, it works,’Roberts affirms.

Also, a study done by Susan Clifford at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, shows a conclusion of little or no direct effect on FIFO workers mental and physical health. ‘The main conclusion of this project is that for most employees and partners, FIFO and extended working hours had some negative impacts on their mining work satisfaction and lifestyles but did not affect other aspects of their life (i.e. stress levels, mood, relationship quality or health).’

Norwegian offshore workers in the oil industry are quite similar to the Australian FIFO schedule. Although it is mostly stationed in the Northern Sea, a Norwegian offshore worker may travel just as much as an Australian FIFO worker when getting on and off the rig.

Vegar Midtgård is a Norwegian offshore worker and is stationed in a department called Baroid Surface Solution (BSS). The work is generally 19:16:19:23 rotation which means that in the duration of 19 days on, he is out for 14 days. Midtgård means it is a flexible departure time, as he then has 16 days off. In other words, two weeks on, three weeks off, two weeks on and four weeks off (2:3:2:4). ‘I am never stationed at one rig, only where there is drilling operations. I have worked almost 15 years in the process industry on land, and has now worked two years offshore and thrive. This is due to the shift system and spare time for sure,’ Midtgård says.

When working FIFO, the distance from home, family and friends can be a sore topic. When I talked to the FIFO workers about this issue they were all quite convinced that they had made the right choice but had a good understanding of the fact that many people will have an issue with balancing the FIFO life with private life. We may miss what’s happening in and around the home the days you are out. Like birthday celebrations and other customary pursuits at home. But in return, you can have full focus on it 24 hours a day when you have the weeks off,’ says Vegar Midtgard.

In addition, it is more or less likely that it would be challenging to go back into a 9 to 5 job when they are used to quite much freedom while being off. ‘I definitely miss my family, but I know if I went back to normal life I’d be tired of that, pretty much within a month. I can’t do the normal life,’ Verishine says.

For Roberts it is a bit different, as his family must be at home and have to live their lives, sometimes without being able to contact their father at any time. ‘They miss me when I’m gone, but at the end of the day they realize that it’s a good job. Its not excessively hard work what i’m specifically doing, so when I do come home it might take me a day or two to adjust, but i’m there. I have a full weekend with them as well, rather than trying to chase and do everything on a sunday, which is still not possible. We have a good balance. They didn’t like it when I first started and then they realized I am actually home a lot more than I was before,’ he says.

When trying to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages with FIFO work, Roberts is representing many of the workers at the rig who can find themselves in the same situation and perception of the working conditions.‘You spend the first 3 or 4 months working it out and sitting on a little bit of a seaside. My wife and girls are at home and there will be something that comes up, like a school formal, Christmas or Easter that you miss out on. At the same time it is a lot more of the year you have at home. I spend 6 months a year at home now, I don’t need to take a holiday. With two weeks at a time there’s plenty of time to go visit relatives in Victoria or camping at Fraser Island for a week,’ Mike says.

In 2006, many Norwegian oil workers fought a quite public case for the right to redress because of major damage done to their physical and mental health after years of chemical expose and on platforms. This has been a comprehensive issue in the oil business in Scandinavia ever since and unions are putting pressure on the state, employers associations and organizations.

Large oil companies, like Statoil, is partly state owned and the health and safety routines are strictly regulated by law. Which makes it one of the most important reasons why the schedules of FIFO workers seems austere and straight and they are continuously working for a better environment for their employees. If something goes wrong with security, it would be a national scandal. However, the workers rely on the companies to learn of their mistakes and make health and security a top priority.

As inconvenient as it sounds, Midtgård says he prefers to work mostly night shifts as it is a much better pay. However, it seems to be a schedule not suitable for everyone. ‘When it comes to my sleeping pattern, it is generally not a problem to switch from night to day shift after two weeks on. I am consciously sleeping a bit less after the last night shifts before I go home so that I will be tired in the evening. Then I get up early the day after and I find myself in the right rhythm after two days,’ he says.

Verishine says he is content with the fact that they are taken good care of at the rig. They are given both the time and opportunity to look after themselves both when it comes to diet, training and sleep. ‘My sleeping pattern is good. I have a routine as I get up at 5, drive out to the rig, work until 6, then I go back to camp, go for a run or a gym session, have dinner, and if there is a little bit of time I read a little bit. Then I go to sleep and do it all again’.

At the Norwegian offshore platforms, the conditions can also be a bit different from the Australian. Being stationed at rough sea with high speed winds and harsh cold weather it can be even more risky to get both on and off shore. Also, they are often exposed to chemicals and loud mechanical sounds and heavy work. ‘The shifts I got on shore was much more tiring and exhausting for my body. That can be the challenge of being out of work for 14 days,’ says Midtgård.

After speaking to three different men working in three different positions and in three different conditions it is a fact that the hard work is paying off in the end. It is also obvious that they are all proud of what they are a part of, both personally and nationally. Both the offshore oil industry and the Australian mining benefits the unemployment rates in each country as well as contribute to innovation in technology.

Roberts wraps up his thoughts of the controversial schedules of FIFO workers by saying he does not regret his choice of career and wishes more people would see the work that they do for the country, as they are a part of something bigger. ‘Over the last 12 months both me and my family have worked out and come to the conclusion that there are far more positives in it than negatives. So why not keep doing it?’.

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