The Australian offshore oil and gas industry has been warned about imposing long rosters as they reorganise their operations to reduce the risk from COVID-19.

NOPSEMA, the offshore oil and gas safety regulator, today issued an alert to operators to reconsider the risk to mental health from long swings away from home.

"Research suggests that fly-in fly-out workers may experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms than that of the general population," the alert said.

The regulator said the general population is likely to be suffering heightened anxiety due to COVID-19 so extended rosters could "represent a greater psychosocial risk than would otherwise be the case" for FIFO workers.

NOPSEMA said it had received a range of concerns about operators extending offshore work when they added quarantine periods to rosters. Concerns included insufficient consultation with workers and a lack of consideration of the effects on worker fatigue and the mental health of workers and their families.

"Psychosocial risks associated with extended rosters include onset or exacerbation of psychological injury such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation."

"Operators should include evidence-based information about the psychological health of their offshore workforce, and should not assume predominantly sound levels of psychological health."

The alert also said fatigue from longer rosters increased the chance of errors that could cause accidents with multiple fatalities.

In late March Inpex introduced a roster of two weeks in isolation, three weeks offshore and then four weeks at home for offshore workers on the Ichthys LNG project.

At the same time, Woodside issued a roster option to workers of two weeks in quarantine followed by 12 weeks offshore. A worker who completed the swing would receive a bonus of up to $80,000.

Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union WA state secretary Steve McCartney said 14 weeks away from home could increase suicide rates.

"The last time we saw 14-week swings in WA was in the 70s," McCartney said.

"I worked those shifts and speak from personal experience. They're no good for family life and no good for mental health."

Woodside quickly dropped the option and introduced a shorter roster of two weeks of quarantine, four weeks work and then two weeks at home.


Main picture: Wheatstone offshore platform. Source: Chevron Australia Pty Ltd