24 hours on the average mine site

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By MiningFM creator Alicia Ranford

"It was not quite like I had imagined: no big party town; just lots of friendly, tired people."

This is a recent comment from a MiningFM reader (after she'd spent Christmas onsite with her husband) and I've got to say it echoes the views of many others.

It's difficult to imagine what life is like on a mine site, especially if you've never been lucky enough to get out there and experience it for yourself. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding seems to lead to a lot of anxiety and conflict in some FIFO relationships. The reality, of course, is that life can be hard on both sides of the fence: whether you're the one at home or you're flying off to the middle of nowhere for work. 

It was two years before I finally visited a mine site with Joe. I thought I knew what a donga was, and that I had a fair idea what life was like for him: no cooking or cleaning; a few drinks at the bar after work each night with his mates; and then off to bed for a restful night's sleep. Thank goodness I got to see the reality for myself before we had kids, otherwise I think I could have become a very resentful wife. Imagining him relaxing after work (while I fed and bathed the kids, cleaned the house, took out the bins and put away the washing) would not have made for a happy homecoming. 

So for those of you who've never been on site, I thought it might be useful to describe the average 24 hours on a major mining operation.  Just remember, 12 hours (from 6am to 6pm) is the average work day on most mines. Many rosters run for two weeks - one week of night shift followed by another of day shift (and vice versa). This varies depending on whether the mine is open cut or underground, soft or hard rock, the type of ore extracted and how far from camp the mine is located. Having said all that, this is generally how it goes...

Time

What's going on

5am

alarm goes off

5am - 5.15am

dress and head to mess hall

5.15am - 5.45am

eat breakfast and pack lunch/snacks to take for the day. Head to the bus

5.45am - 6am

bus from camp to site

6am - 6.15am

pre-start shift meeting

6.15am - noon

work 

noon - 12.30pm

lunch 

12.30pm - 6pm

work 

6pm - 6.15pm

bus back to camp 

6.15pm

shower, eat in the mess, do your washing, engage in after-work activities such as cricket/pool/ gym/walking/reading/internet/perhaps a few drinks (this will all vary greatly depending on facilities available) then sleep 

The routine is the same, day-in/day-out or night-in/night-out for the length of your roster, except for shift change from day to nights and vice versa (e.g. finish days at 6pm and start night shift at 6pm the following day, or finish nights at 6am and start day shift at 6am the following day.)

Shift change can be a bone of contention in many relationships. In general, workers aim to stay up for as long as possible at the end of their last day/night shift in order to get a good sleep before starting the next shift. This often involves eating dinner and then having a few drinks. Well, let’s be honest ... for some it involves quite a lot of drinks. And this is where the problem lies. For the partner at home, looking after the kids, it can seem unreasonable. (As one reader put it, "I don’t get to go out and have one too many drinks, so why should he?") 

For what it’s worth, my view is this: as a former shift worker (I was a registered nurse in a previous life) I understand how difficult it can be to swap from days to nights and vice versa. Your body clock essentially needs to be tricked so you can suddenly change your sleeping habits. I am not encouraging excessive alcohol to make the switch, but I can sympathise with the idea of having a few drinks while trying to stay up for as long as possible to make the transition. If the amount of alcohol consumed between shifts is a problem in your relationship, you need to talk about it. It's also important to note that wet mess staff must comply with normal bar service laws and that mining is one of the most highly tested industries for drugs and alcohol.

It is really important to communicate exactly what a normal day is like for you and your partner. Don’t assume you know the ups and downs of each other’s day. Take a camera to site and take photos of your donga, the mess hall and the area where you work. That way your partner at home will be more able to understand what's going on. And this goes both ways of course. We are forever sending Joe photos of Sam’s latest Lego creation, the cupcakes Abby has made or their latest haircuts. I promise the effort will be worth it.