They are at the pointy end of our resources boom, workers in their thousands leaving behind family and friends for perhaps weeks to pursue a career and big money in some of the State's harshest environments. But at what cost?
Serious questions are now being raised about the impact fly in, fly out (FIFO) work is having on communities and the health and wellbeing of workers and their families.
While not new, FIFO (also drive in, drive out) has become a workforce phenomenon in recent years, feeding overwhelming demand for skilled labour that otherwise could not be met.
As the practice has grown, so has the disquiet and FIFO is the subject of a national inquiry by the House Standing Committee on Regional Australia. Its report is due early next year.
And, while the inquiry's terms of reference do not specifically cover the health implications of FIFO for workers and their families, health groups are hoping any recommendations will address growing concerns.
WA Health Department research has revealed FIFO workers take far more risks with their health - drinking more, weighing more and smoking more than other types of employees.
"When you look at the risk factors, 80 per cent are overweight or obese, which is higher than the general population, and 65 per cent are drinking more than two drinks a day - so there are real health issues there," Tarun Weeramanthri, the department's Public Health Division executive director, said.
The health sector and employers needed to respond, he said.
On the upside, though, workers seem less likely to have mental health problems - a surprise finding, given the extended periods of isolation from family and friends, and it appears to contradict anecdotal evidence to the inquiry.
Lifeline recently launched a research project into the mental health of FIFO workers and their families. This followed recent comments from Jeff Kennett, the chairman of beyondblue, the organisation set up to help tackle depression, flagging the need to set up mental health support for FIFO workers. Mr Kennett blamed the resources boom for creating hidden social problems linked to marriage breakdown and suicide.
Dr Weeramanthri questioned where FIFO workers accessed health services.
"Maybe the employers are expecting that they will actually go to a GP and other services when they come back to Perth but maybe that's the last thing they feel like doing when they come back," he said.
Doctors too, are concerned. In its submission to the inquiry the Australian Medical Association of WA raised the alarm about the rise in sexually transmitted infections among FIFO workers and indentified mental health issues, relationship strain and drug and alcohol abuse as common problems raised by FIFO workers with their GPs.
It also identified FIFO's ripple effect, saying that workers' wives, children and sometimes older fragile parents, felt disconnected and experienced increased stress, mental illness and substance abuse, behavioural problems in children and loss of support for elderly parents.
AMA WA president Richard Choong said some people took FIFO jobs for the money, not always considering what it may mean for the family left behind.
"They often become a pseudo single parent (and) they have to manage so many things when their partners aren't there, so that has a big impact and not all of them cope with it."
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