Mental health in the workplace

We are fortunate that historically, Australia has a strong record of gun control. We haven?t experienced the kind of trauma that seems all too regular in the United States and abroad since Port Arthur in 1996 ? particularly the horrors at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last November or the Aurora theatre shootings in Colorado last July.

Another US shooting, which was not as devastating as the above tragedies but is nevertheless of interest to the quarrying industry, occurred in October 2011. Three men were killed at a Californian quarry by a disgruntled employee. Proprietor LeHigh Hanson now finds itself facing lawsuits from two of the victims? families after allegations that it had received prior warnings about the disgruntled employee?s state of mind and could have done more to enhance workers? safety.

Perhaps the greatest lesson out of the LeHigh quarry tragedy is that safety encompasses not just your workers? physical health and well-being but their mental health and stability. Managers have not just an obligation to ensure that their workers are uninjured but are also of a sound mind and disposition that will not put themselves or others at risk.

Similarly, workers and operators must also look out for each other?s welfare. From all the accounts that have emerged, the quarry workers at the LeHigh plant were apprehensive about their colleague?s erratic behaviour but even when they reported their concerns, managers snubbed them, in the process indirectly breaching their duty of care.

Mental health is not an issue to be shrugged off. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2007, 45 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 85 years, or 7.3 million people, have at some point in their lifetime experienced mental illness. Last August, Professor Allan Fels, the chairman of the National Mental Health Commission, told a National Press Club meeting that in the mining industry, an estimate of up to 10,000 employees ? from managers to machinery operators to drivers – in a 12 month period have experienced anxiety, depression or substance abuse.

Further, work by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and the University of Newcastle has shown that of those 10,000 workers, only 35 per cent seek counselling. This alone represents a loss of up to $450 million per year in productive workers. This does not include any data about how many quarry workers may have a mental illness.

The mining industry has started to address the issue in the last few years in collaboration with other associations like the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Health (ACRRH). The ACRRH traditionally surveys the mental health of indigenous and farming communities but now includes remote mine sites. The New South Wales Minerals Council has allied itself with the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and University of Newcastle to identify the mental health issues of coal industry employees and the impact on workplace safety and productivity.

Both studies aim to develop mental health prevention models that can be integrated into a mine?s OHS systems, human resources and induction processes. Integration will ensure that risk factors are recognised and minimised. ACCRH CEO Dr Jennifer Bowers has also argued that by proactively raising awareness of mental health, there should be ?improved safety and health outcomes?, ?productivity benefits? and employees will ?feel more valued … work more effectively and … focus on doing the job safely?.

While it is unlikely that the LeHigh tragedy will be repeated in this country, I believe the quarrying industry must also be more proactive in dealing with mental illness. While it requires changes to your organisational culture, improving safety ? both the physical and intellectual well-being of your employees ? is ultimately going to make your operations stronger in the long term.

Fostering a positive working environment that recognises mental health is also extremely important for people seeking to return to the workforce after prolonged periods of illness; as Fels told the National Press Club last year, 20 to 40 per cent of individuals recover and go on to live fulfilling lives, often with jobs. Considering we are in a skills crisis, that?s extra incentive for us to support our workers. We need every able-bodied man and woman out there.

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