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Former Inpex worker lambasts FIFO workplace culture after recent death

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A former Inpex worker in Darwin has lambasted FIFO workplace culture and what he said were inadequate attempts to resolve mental health issues associated with working long rosters in isolated locations.

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The worker, who was recently made redundant, decided to speak out after it emerged that employees of one subcontractor were told they would need a medical certificate if they wanted time off work following the apparent suicide of a co-worker earlier this week.

The man was employed by Kaefer, a subcontractor to JKC Australia LNG.

The CFMEU claims that man was the 14th project worker to commit suicide since the $47 billion Inpex Ichthys gas project began in 2012.

But former Inpex worker Ruben Luxton told ABC Radio Darwin the number, while extraordinarily high, was likely to be a conservative estimate.

"It's quite hard to know exactly how many [suicides there have been] because when a worker takes his or her life overseas, that data is not recorded, or interstate, it's very hard to know," Mr Luxton said.

He has been a FIFO worker across three states over more than six years.

"I haven't experienced that level of mental health issues or rates of suicide before," he said.

Former Inpex worker Ruben Luxton.

"Since I've been there [at Inpex], it has been a very consistent… roughly one every three months."

He said it was not unusual that employees were expected to continue work following the death of a co-worker.

"It's been very difficult to have time to grieve, because often we have to stay at work, or we really do have to fight them to get some time off… it doesn't happen with suicide; you've got to carry on.

"That's the attitude of a lot of the companies there."

Working 'divorce roster' difficult to maintain

Mr Luxton attributes the high suicide rate to a workplace culture that was inadequate when it came to recognising the high risk of mental health issues associated with FIFO work.

"We have a meeting before we start work… and then we hear things like 'numbers to call', you know, 'signs to look out for'," he said.

"It's such a basic response to the [the point] where the really big issues that workers feel — like the amount of time they're away from their families — is never addressed."

Mr Luxton had worked on the Inpex site for about three years, often to a roster of four six-day weeks on followed by one week off.

"I think if you talk to any FIFO worker, the four-and-one is known as the divorce roster, not just the suicide roster," he said.

Worker using powertool at Inpex Ichthys LNG project.

His claims align with a new study, published this week in the BMJ Open medical journal, into the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO workers and their partners in Australia.

A common concern among workers interviewed for the study, according to co-author Amanda Rebar, was the difficulty in balancing aspects of workers' personal and working lives.

"Our research is showing that people who are feeling like they have mental health issues are afraid to speak up to their organisations, but also at home," Dr Rebar said.

"I'd encourage people to re-think that mentality of asking people to suck it up, because that can make people's feelings of depression and isolation much worse."

But she said FIFO workers and their partners also reiterated concerns that speaking up could affect their employability.

"They're happy to give phone numbers and talk, but they don't seem like they're really prioritising their workers' health and wellbeing over profits," she said.

An Inpex worker writes his concerns on a note stuck on the window at the JKC office in Darwin.

The research also showed feelings of anxiety and depression could be amplified when people were without face-to-face contact with their family and friends.

"We'd encourage organisations to think about re-considering their rosters in a way that focuses and allows people to be home more," Dr Rebar said.

In response to ABC inquiries, Inpex reissued statements made on Tuesday: "Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with his family and his colleagues at this difficult time," it read.

"As the matter is currently being investigated by NT Police, it is inappropriate to comment further at this time."

It said that Kaefer (employer of the worker who died) had mobilised counsellors, and that counsellors were based at the Bladin Point site and two accommodation villages by the OzHelp Foundation to provide additional support to its workforce.

Calls for shorter rosters

In 2015, a Western Australian parliamentary committee investigating the mental health of FIFO workers concluded that FIFO work could lead to a higher risk of mental health issues.

It also recommended establishing a searchable database for the suicides of FIFO workers.

Mr Luxton called for a code of practice to be established and enforced among employers of FIFO workers.

Aerial photo of Inpex's Ichthys LNG plant site at Bladin Point.

He said employers should also make it easier for employees to access living-away-from-home allowances, which provide financial support for workers to bring families to live with them or nearby.

"That was something I know the unions fought for in the beginning of the job, but it became very difficult to get and I believe contractors now flat-out refuse it," he said.

"For example, I wanted to get that when I moved up here, but it was taken off the table."

He also called for shorter rosters to be considered.

"There'd be several ways we could address it, I think the predominant one would be the roster," Mr Luxton said.

"I think we really have to reduce the amount of time that workers are required to be away from their families."

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