August 2006

Opportunities and challenges of fly-in–fly-out camps for women

An exploratory study

By S. D. Costa, A. C. Silva, and V. Hui

Evolution in mining and transportation technologies and changes in town development standards have resulted in the apparent rejection of the concept of the “mining town” in favour of the fly-in–flyout (FIFO) system in the Canadian mining industry (Shrimpton and Storey, 1989; Heiler et al., 2003). Fly-in–fly-out, also referred to as flyin, long distance commuting, or commuter mines, has become the dominant approach to new mine developments, particularly in Australia and Canada (Costa, 2004). Common rosters adopted in Canadian FIFO mines are four-days-in–three-days-out (4/3 roster) and the two-weeks-in–two-weeks-out roster (2/2 roster). Shifts are usually 12 hours long.

Although FIFO plays an important role in fulfilling the economic, social, and workforce needs of the contemporary mining industry, extended absence from home can be challenging for both male and female employees. Research in the mining and oil and gas industries reveals that major sources of stress for fly-in–fly-out mining employees are the times of parting and of reunion, defining roles within the family, parenting, and conflict between spouses over the use of leave time and money (Shrimpton and Storey, 1986; 1991).

But is the nature of the FIFO model threatening the place women have attained in the mining workforce? How are women in the industry coping with FIFO schedules and consequent intermittent relationships with families/partners? How is the industry adapting to recruit and retain female employees in FIFO operations? This article briefly discusses an exploratory study that provides some initial insights that help us answer these questions, and concludes with initial recommendations for industry and for future research.

Why is it important to hire and retain women in the mining workforce?

Although the number of women in the mining workforce has increased in the last few years, women continue to be under-represented, at 13.1 per cent of the workforce, which is substantially lower than the national average of 46.9 per cent (2003 figures)(MITAC, 2005).The average percentage of women in the FIFO mines that participated in this study was even lower, at about 10 per cent.

Diversity in the workplace brings clear, tangible, and measurable advantages to organizations (Pattenden, 2002). Diversity management strongly correlates with higher morale, improved public image, improved productivity, and more creative problem-solving (AusIMM, 2004). An Equal Employment Opportunity (US) Commission study indicates that effective diversity management strategies significantly impact positively on a corporation’s profitability (Gilbert and Stead, 1999). Moreover, diversity can enhance innovation because it brings together a variety of perspectives and problem-solving skills.This is important for the mining industry, particularly in areas where innovation is essential, such as in mineral exploration and research and development (Pattenden, 2002).

We would also argue that by failing to hire and to retain female employees, the mining industry is losing talent and corporate knowledge, and failing to benefit from a larger pool of non-technical and teamwork skills and emotional intelligence.

Study strategy and population

This study included telephone interviews and questionnaires. We contacted the human resources (HR) superintendents of five operating FIFO mines.We asked them for an interview and to distribute the invitation to participate to women working or who had worked in their operations. During a period of two months, we were able to interview three HR superintendents and 16 women who are currently working or who worked in FIFO mines.

In the group of women interviewed, 31.5 per cent were engineers/geologists, 12.5 per cent were in health/wellness-related positions, 12.5 per cent were in trades, and 43.75 per cent were in administrative/ financial positions. The average age was 33. Most of them were single (56 per cent), and 12.5 per cent had children. Half of the women interviewed were in a 2/2 roster.The other half was in a 4/3 roster or a combination of different rosters.

The HR superintendents and female employees’ opinions, our conclusions, and recommendations are discussed in the next sections.

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