A Brisbane-based drilling company head is calling for greater flexibility in Queensland quarantine rules as workers face growing mental stress and the window for completing northern exploration programs draws nearer to closing.
DDH1 Drilling general manager – east Russell Chard believes his crew members present a very low risk of spreading COVID-19 as they are predominantly travelling between the regional centres where they live and very controlled work sites that are usually in isolated areas.
He is frustrated that his company has been unable to secure exemptions for the key workers needed to keep rigs running and is seeing the impact on the mental health of those separated from their loved ones for long periods.
“We’re probably still managing to keep 80 to 85 per cent of our jobs going today,” Mr Chard said.
“But it is taking its toll the longer this goes on and the more people are away from home.
“Blokes are trying to stick it out and do what they can until they reach the end of their tether.
“I actually had a phone call from one of our blokes, a couple of Friday nights ago, with some suicidal tendencies. And, that’s not a good phone call to take from anybody.”
He believes that a concession to allow workers crossing the Queensland border to spend the mandatory two-week quarantine period isolated within their own home rather than alone in a motel room would assist greatly in easing the strain.
“We’re happy to isolate, we’re happy to do a few extra things, but it’s rigid, there’s no grey area,” Mr Chard said.
Very few reasons for exemption – Queensland Health
A Queensland Health spokesman said the department recognised the important role that specialist workers played, including within the resources sector.
“Along with stringent border controls, social distancing, and robust testing, hotel quarantine is an important tool in the fight to keep Queenslanders safe from COVID-19,” he said.
“There are very few reasons why an exemption from hotel quarantine will be granted.
“These are difficult decisions however these restrictions are in place for the protections of all Queenslanders. We appreciate the challenges facing many industries, including those from the resources sector, during this unprecedented time.”
Mr Chard said DDH1 had rigs working in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory, including at mines and exploration sites.
“Predominantly our blokes live up and down the Eastern seaboard, from Sydney all the way through to Cairns,” he said.
“Obviously with the COVID border restrictions, some of the staff in NSW now can’t get into Queensland if that’s where they are required. We’ve also had staff from Queensland working on the NSW rigs who can’t get back home without going into hotel quarantine.
“But I guess the biggest frustration is, while we appreciate what is going on and that the health and safety of everybody is most paramount, the bulk of the infections are in the capital cities. We aren’t working in those places. We work out in the bush, away from everywhere.”
Many DDH1 senior employees lived in areas such as the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast and would catch private charter flights from Archerfield airport to their work sites, he said.
“We have our own COVID plan and when our workers are on break, even in Queensland when they’re flying internally, they have to have a clear COVID test before they go back to work,” Mr Chard said. “The last thing we want to do is be responsible for taking the virus out to the bush.”
Workers up against ‘lack and white’ approach
He said he appreciated how hard it would be for authorities to make different rules to fit the many different situations, but was frustrated at what seemed like a very ‘black and white’ approach to border rules this time around.
“During the first border closure between Queensland and NSW, we were getting exemptions for our regional sector blokes to get around, whereas this time it’s just very rigid,” he said.
“Most people have commitments one way or another, so these blokes want to do the work when it’s there.
“But while there’s a big focus on mental health and fatigue in the resources industry, we can’t seem to get any sort of relief around exemptions to try and get these blokes home to their family.”
The issue is not the bulk of the drill rig positions – such as junior drillers and offsiders – which can be readily filled within the state where the work is happening. It centres on 20-30 supervisors, senior drillers and drill fitters who must be shifted around to where their expertise is most needed.
Mr Chard said the longer the tight restrictions went on, the more jobs would have to be postponed due to the inability to get personnel there as required.
And he said COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty had already seen a late start to field work in North West Queensland, with little cranking up until June-July.
Companies were now scrambling to get the work done before the wet season set in (around November), with a cash injection courtesy of the recent Collaborative Exploration Initiative grants adding to the level of activity, he said.
“The government on one hand wants to keep the economic situation going and so they’re putting those stimulus measures in, but if we can’t go out and do the work or get the right people to do the work, it’s not being effective,” Mr Chard said.