Practicing as a nutritionist in Western Australia means that I come across quite a few clients who have jobs in the mining industry, and many of those clients want to get fit and lose weight.  The current rate of obesity in Australia sits at two-thirds (62.8%), and this rate is increasing faster than any other nation.   However, obesity rates are even higher in the mining industry where the rate of overweight employees is currently 76%.

Being overweight in the mining industry can affect fitness for work, reduced productivity and an increased risk of work related injury especially for occupations with a high level of physical activity and demands on mobility.  At the point of employment, employers may ask a candidate to undertake a medical examination to prove fitness for work for some physical roles, but once in the job, miners have nothing preventing them from increasing body weight to a point where it affects their ability to carry out their job.  In fact, the environment they find themselves in can actually encourage weight gain.  Nutrition Australia has identified many of the aspects of an Australian miners job that can affect weight gain including:

  • Shift work.  A known risk factor for hormone disruption and weight gain due to a disrupted routine and eating at unusual times.
  • Camp Food.  Most of my mining clients mention that the camp food is very good, and there is a wide array of both healthy and unhealthy foods available, mostly in buffet style.  However, when a worker comes in very hungry from a long shift, they fill up their plate to excess and find it difficult to stay away from high energy, unhealthy food.  If fish and chips on the menu then they are much more likely to forego the salad bar.
  • High alcohol consumption.  Most miners are away from home and may seek out company in the local bar.  Alcohol is also a way to unwind from a long day at work, but it is energy dense and inflammatory in the body leading to weight gain.
  • Lack of exercise.  Long shifts in what can be a sedentary job means that there is little time to exercise, and as some shifts can be a few weeks long it means that the worker is barely moving most of the time.

So what can be done?  Various studies have found that workplace weight-loss programmes initiated by employers that target both physical activity and nutrition can be effective in improving the health of their employees.  These studies recognised that employees are at various stages of change which should be recognised by employers when implementing health promotion programmes (see diagram below).  For example, if an employee is at the ‘pre contemplation’ stage then they may not even realise they have a problem.  A health screening programme may work at this stage to help the employee to realise that they are heading towards obesity and ill health.  If an employee is contemplating change, providing lots of information on fitness programmes available may move them towards determination and action.  If an employee is at the ‘action’ stage then having the food and facilities on site to help that person take action is integral to allow them to lose weight and get fit and healthy. Nutrition Australia have linked a healthy workforce to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and attrition, good staff morale, a positive company image to help job retention and a greater ability for companies to attract healthy recruits so it is worth a company’s while to initiate health promotion programmes.

A study by Street and Thomas (2016) found that mining employees with an increased risk of obesity related illnesses were open to weight management assistance by employers.  Those at the ‘contemplation and ‘determination’ stages of change were keen to learn about nutrition, which highlights that although they were keen to lose weight, they were unsure on as to how to modify their eating behaviours required to make this change.  Those at the ‘Action’ stage tended to be healthier and were seeking out good opportunities to exercise.  As you can see there is a ‘relapse’ part of the model, which indicates that employees may require ongoing guidance and support to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

For employers, this information would suggest that although healthy food options and gyms are available in work camps, it would of further benefit to educate employees about making healthy food choices and the need for regular exercise.  A well thought out wellness programme can make a big difference in the lives of their employees and to their bottom line.

References:

Street, TD, Thomas DL 2016, ‘Beating obesity: factors associated with interest in workplace weight management assistance in the mining industry’, Safety and Health at Work, pp. 2016, no. 1-5, viewed 16 January 2017, https://eprint.qut.edu.au/102287/1/102287.pdf