The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to profoundly affect the way we live and work. As a result, some people are experiencing prolonged or elevated stress and anxiety levels.
Increased stress and anxiety during times of global instability is common and to be expected. However, if not managed well, stress and anxiety can compromise safety and wellbeing at work. When people experience increased levels of stress or anxiety they are more at risk of:
- mental ill health
- physical injury
- making mistakes that may jeopardise the health and safety of others, or lead to operational inefficiencies.
Operating during COVID-19
The Federal and State Government identified several industry and service sectors as an essential part of the Australian economy, including the mining and resource sector. As such, the government has approved these industries to continue to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Continued operation during the pandemic requires organisations to adhere to the usual legislative obligations while managing the threat posed by COVID-19.
In order to operate safely, industry must develop a system of work in which:
- Infectious disease control measures are implemented to minimise the spread.
- Measures already in place are maintained to address well known work health and safety risks.
Both of these are required to be integrated into a safe system of work to protect workers. Specifically, employers need to be protecting workers’ physical health and mental health and reducing the likelihood of making mistakes.
Mistakes can be controlled by integrating human organisational factors into safe systems of work. For example, an organisation can identify, manage and control for potential workplace errors, review to prevent future errors and mitigate the outcomes of errors.
Adapting business practices
Achieving the two requirements simultaneously requires industry to consider alternative ways of delivering business practices and services, and continue to review the effect of these alternatives when changes occur. Some of these alternatives may impact production.
While slowed production may be the result, in some cases it is necessary as a control to support workers while they get used to new or modified systems of work.
Changing habits takes a lot of conscious effort. The bigger the change, the bigger the effort required.
Many operators are adjusting to the changing situation by modifying the roster arrangements with the aim of avoiding cross-contamination of sections of the work force and to respond to the impact of COVID-19 measures on workforce availability.
This alternative may result in extended periods of work, less time for rest and recovery and greater uncertainty in relation to work arrangements. This presents elevated risk associated with psychosocial hazards of stress, burnout and fatigue. All three of these hazards can increase the risk of harm to health and the likelihood of error.
When making changes to rosters, employers need to:
- consult with the workforce in relation to the changes
- conduct a fatigue risk assessment
- consider effects of psychosocial hazards to workers and their families
- communicate proposed additional control measures intended to minimise the risks introduced through roster changes
- use change management processes
- consider the impact of proposed roster changes on incident risk
- consult relevant guidance and codes of practice
Fatigue is a psychosocial hazard that affects the physical and mental health of workers. Like other workplace hazards, managing fatigue is part of the duty of care responsibilities of the employer and workforce.
Poor fatigue management associated with extended rosters is linked to increased likelihood of:
- physical injury
- human error due to mental fatigue
- detrimental impacts on mental health
Considerations for fatigue during COVID-19
When assessing risks and establishing controls relating to fatigue for the workforce in response to COVID-19 consider the impact of travel restrictions and requirements on workers.
Dependent on the measures introduced this may include considering the impact on workers who need to travel across intra and interstate borders and are subject to additional requirements due to their travel that can introduce hazards. Consideration may also need to be given to the effect on the workforce when travel restrictions prevent workers from returning to work as scheduled.
Keeping the workforce informed of changes and restrictions affecting their usual travel plans or timeframes is important to manage fatigue and practical support should be offered where possible to effectively address fatigue related risks for affected workers.
As noted previously, any alterations made to rosters or work arrangements due to measures related to COVID-19 should be subject to a robust risk assessment and controls established to reduce risks to as low as practicable.
For more information on fatigue management, visit Guidance about preventing and managing fatigue.
Protecting and managing mental health
Research has indicated that FIFO workers may be likely to experience depression and anxiety more than non-FIFO workers. The elevated level of societal anxiety response to COVID-19, as well as isolation and ‘social distancing’ measures, are likely to increase this mental health risk.
Psychosocial hazards and risk factors interact with each other so identified hazards should be considered collectively as well as individually. For example, the combined effect of increased job demands due to reduced workforce, low control over the changing situation, and low support indicated by lack of consultation can increase the likelihood and severity of a negative impact on a worker’s mental health status.
What can I do?
Employers, managers and supervisors all have an important role to play in preventing the impact of workplace psychosocial hazards and mitigating risk factors with that affect workers’ mental health.
General guidance for employers, managers and supervisors on managing employee mental health during COVID-19 and for workers about looking after their own mental health during COVID-19 is available on DMIRS’ website.