Occupational health and safety, fatigue management and site efficiency are arguably three of the most important aspects of any mine site. But where does nutrition fit into the picture?
After touring a mine site in Tasmania in late 2016, I noticed the nutrition posters on the crib room walls were more than 15 years out of date. In contrast, I noticed the up to date and informative displays in the toilets about dehydration, posters on the walls about personal protective equipment and many other safety procedures. This got me thinking – surely the nutritional information provided to employees should be just as up to date and relevant as this other information?
As a dietitian, my job is to educate people on the importance of good nutrition and how it plays a vital role in our daily lives. Although it has become more popular in the last few years to be fit and healthy, the average Australian is not. As a nation, we are getting bigger every year – in 2014-15, 63.4 per cent of Australians aged 18 years and over were overweight or obese (ABS, 2015). With the continual rise of convenience foods, reduced physical activity and long hours at work, the battle for balance becomes increasingly harder. In 2014-15, only seven per cent of the population met the recommended daily intake of vegetables. A 2014 PwC report also found that 22.7 per cent of workers in the mining industry have a mental health condition (PwC, 2014). These statistics highlight the large gap between current health trends and the reality of health in the workforce.
Addressing these issues on site in Tasmania has been a progressive process. The mine is a drive in, drive out site with a camp and messing facilities to support site-based employees. The main nutritional aims grew organically; my work initially focused on updating the nutrition information displays, and then quickly expanded into food service reviews, one-on-one consultations, providing interactive nutrition displays and investigating the thoughts and feelings of employees towards food and nutrition on site. Observing and building rapport with employees was key in this environment, due to the tight-knit community of a remote and small site – as well as pre-conceived ideas about dietitians being the ‘food police’! Bridging the gap between the statistics, health trends and clinical information on the one hand, and everyday achievable goals on the other is one of the main objectives for this site. Physically visiting the camp once a month (I fly from NSW to do so) has allowed me to build better rapport; by visiting the site I provide a presence that is harder to ignore than a poster on a wall. With time and patience, I have gradually been accepted into a male-dominated environment, with an ever increasing number of employees approaching me to discuss nutrition and general health issues.
The site is a 24-hour operation with employees usually on a four on, four off style roster, staying on site and away from their usual family and friend support networks. For many employees, an average day consists of a 12-hour shift in a truck, having a chef-prepared meal (buffet style), packing their own ‘crib’ meals from a selection of self-service style deli options and heading down into the pit before coming back for another buffet-style meal and going to their rooms to sleep. Due to the nature of this style of work, good nutrition is paramount to support good physical and mental health. As a site that provides all employee food, there are many opportunities to influence the health of workers; however, such opportunities are limited by budget and availability, especially since it is a remote site with weekly food deliveries (which can also be hindered by weather). A selection of freshly prepared salads is always available, including fresh fruit, bread and wraps. However, numerous discretionary items such as scones, cakes and savoury pastries are also on offer, with many employees taking multiples of these (as food is unlimited). Due to staff changes and rotational rosters, certain meals and crib deli options often get repeated, resulting in reduced variety and enjoyment, with employees purchasing additional unhealthy snacks from the bar to take on shift.
Often people can too easily ignore nutritional posters, flyers and signs advising against eating these types of foods. One of the more successful ways to demonstrate nutritional information on site has been through practical displays. We displayed common snack foods and drinks purchased from the bar on site with the sugar content measured out in teaspoons of white sugar sitting alongside the product, which created conversation and healthy change. An example of this was for smaller containers of mixed lollies to be made available, with some employees reportedly eating less or none at all after realising how much sugar they contained. Sports and energy drinks are another common culprit on site for staying hydrated. These are marketed for their electrolyte content, but usually contain a large amount of added sugar and therefore energy. My work with national level rugby players demonstrated the unnecessary use of these, with not even elite athletes using them due to the energy load. This type of information is especially helpful to those pre-diabetic and diabetic employees on site, with a secondary display focusing on fat in foods to target those with cholesterol issues and heart disease risk.
To target variety and enjoyment, we ran a Mediterranean-themed dinner in September. Aside from a change to the usual menu, we chose to highlight the health benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet that is high in oily fish, healthy fats and vegetables. Our on-site menu showcased Tasmanian salmon, dishes cooked with olive oil and packed with colourful vegetables – all options that can also be prepared by the employees off site. We will also be working on improving communication between kitchen staff to increase variety and nutritional value of meals, as well as the variety of crib meal offerings.
In addition to this, poor mood can influence our food choices. Often we eat large amounts without awareness and out of habit, which can lead to weight gain (Rolls, Morris and Roe, 2002). After a long night shift in freezing temperatures and pouring rain, one can imagine the temptation to have a large hot meal, dessert and go to bed. Tangible changes, namely smaller plate sizes, have been a simple but effective swap for this with immediate results. Smaller portion sizes directly reduce the overall energy content of a meal, and although employees are able to go back for multiple helpings, it has been observed that most don’t bother. Trial removal of fried options at the breakfast buffet, including hash browns and fish cakes, also lessens the reliance on willpower to not fill the plate with these high fat options.
To expand on this information and drive tangible change, I undertook a food survey on site to gather the opinions of employees on the food service and bar area. Initially this proved a challenge (as surveys are easily ignored), requiring me to physically go down into the crib rooms in the pit, hand out surveys and talk to the employees on lunch breaks to get answers. However, ultimately the collated surveys provided valuable feedback, which will be used in the following months to provide better options for crib lunches and main meals.
To improve this issue on a wider scale, nutrition needs to be made a priority on mining sites alongside other issues such as fatigue management, occupational health and safety, and hydration status. The importance of fatigue management has been especially well-recognised in the mining industry. However, we now know this extends beyond simply getting enough sleep. Eating a diet of poor nutritional quality leads to similar symptoms from lack of sleep including brain fog, lack of concentration, mood disruption and reduced reaction time (Selhub, 2015). Combine this with high intakes of caffeinated or energy drinks and you have a recipe for disaster. Blood sugar spikes and crashes, leaving the person feeling flat and fatigued (both mentally and physically), affecting their ability to work both safely and efficiently.
Working on site in Tasmania, I have seen the lack of impact that only displaying nutritional information on posters has for employees. With so many other signs and safety displays, nutrition gets lost in the mix. By working with a dietitian, the management team are able to collaborate and negotiate health and nutrition goals that fit within their scope. As an industry leader, mining needs to lead by example and include nutrition alongside all other health and safety related information. The recent rise in awareness and proactive measures around mental health indicates a forward thinking workforce and a management team that is putting the health of their workers first. Naturally nutrition needs to play an integral role in this; however, this needs to be managed in a collaborative way between the employer and employee to create sustainable change that can be applied both on and off site in the long-term, rather than short-term options that are forced on employees at work. Working with an Accredited Practising Dietitian to create a balance between foods of high nutritional quality, foods for enjoyment and educated choice will translate more effectively to off-site life rather than relying purely on reduction in choice overall.
Find the Australian Guide to Health Eating at www.eatforhealth.gov.au.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2015. National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15 [online]. Available from: www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.001~2014-15~Main%20Features~Overweight%20and%20obesity~22.
PwC, 2014. Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment analysis [online]. Available from www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/beyondblue_workplaceroi_finalreport_may-2014.pdf?sfvrsn=6.
Selhub, E 2015. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food [online]. Available from:
Rolls B J, Morris E L and Roe L S, 2002. Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 76(6):1207-13.