OPINION: Miners’ high wages  come at a high cost

Miners have little say in their working lives, write David Peetz, Olav Muurlink and Georgina Murray

Professor David Peetz, Associate Professor Georgina Murray and Dr Olav Muurlink are at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing at Griffith University.

KEVIN Rudd wasn’t the only person dispatched by the mining industry in recent times.

Last year more than  50,000 mining industry workers left their jobs, half quitting the industry altogether. That’s almost one in four mining employees – the second-highest labour turnover rate of any industry, bar hospitality.

Yet mining pays the highest wages of any industry. And normally, when wages in an industry are high, labour turnover is low.

Whereas most other industries showed lower turnover in 2012 than in 1996, in mining it was higher.

Something is wrong in the industry.

Mining has changed a lot since the 1970s, when the industry boasted one of the shortest standard working weeks. Operators began to run their mines 24 hours a day, and in many cases, 363 days a year.

To accommodate the  drive for profits, miners’ lives have been transformed. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that mining now has some of the longest working hours, and our research shows that the great Australian weekend has disappeared from the industry.

In its place is a range of rotating shifts, typically 12 or more hours in length, with workers working extended ‘‘blocks’’ of days followed by ‘‘blocks’’ of days off.

Large blocks of time off have allowed miners to choose to live in cities and work in mines, but at the same time has split families apart.

It’s internationally recognised that shift work has impacts on gastro-intestinal disorders and there are also hints in the literature of links with everything from irregular menstrual cycles to cancer. However, these earlier ‘‘findings’’ often came from small, relatively poorly designed studies.

We’ve sought to overcome this in our large-scale study of mining and energy workers and their partners.

Our study is called ACES (the Australian Coal and Energy Survey). It is funded through the Australian Research Council’s nationally competitive Linkage Program for research. The methodology was peer-reviewed and approved during the assessment process.

Under the terms of the program, the project has received financial and practical assistance from the ARC and the Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Mining, Forestry and Energy Union, including its co-operation in providing membership lists from which a sample could be scientifically and randomly selected.

Our study has around 4500 participants from the first ‘‘wave’’ of what will be a two-wave national study. 

It includes 2566 mining workers and 1915 of their partners.

So far, our results , released last month, are preliminary. But it was noteworthy that half the sample wanted to be working fewer hours than they were currently working.

The early results also suggested an unusually low sense of control by workers over their jobs, particularly over their hours and shifts. 

When asked ‘‘how much say  do  you have?’’ over a variety of aspects of their work, including the hours they work, the type of shifts they work, which shifts they work on a particular day, and so on, workers often answer, ‘‘None!’’.

Earlier studies had already indicated that this lack of control has  implications for employees – including psychological and physical illness. 

Our research shows also that workers who have no control over their work  are more likely to show a  variety of other tendencies, ranging from troubled sleep through increased use of sleeping pills, antidepressants and antacids, self-reported anxiety, short-term gastro-intestinal illnesses and depression, to a sense of feeling unsafe during night shifts.

They were also more likely to say that they felt unsafe travelling to and from work, and considering the spate of car accidents associated with sleepy mining workers, this is a real concern.

Data from partners often confirmed  they were affected when their spouses were too tired or  drained to function properly.

Our study is a longitudinal study, so there will be a second wave in 2013 when we go back to the same participants and ask them  how things have changed or stayed the same. 

 Then we will be able to answer some of the questions about ‘‘what changes lead to what effects’’ that all miners should know the answers to.

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