The stress of uncertainty takes its toll

ON-site stress-related injuries have increased since the ASH timber supply crisis, according to exercise physiologist Trevor Pendrick.

Mr Pendrick, who is contracted to work on-site at the mill in Heyfield, said usually he dealt with sore backs and arms, but had seen an increase in the past two weeks.

“You get stressed, you get a lot of cortisol released in the body, it increases tension and reduces the range of movement patterns, all of a sudden you’ve got a nice injury sitting there,” he said.

“In the last two weeks I’ve never seen so many shoulders, necks, headaches, it’s unreal.”

Mr Pendrick is also concerned about the mental health effects that the crisis is having on workers, and noted that while he is not a counsellor, he has been trying to start conversations with workers.

“We have seen an increase (in workers) generally worried about their lives,” he said.

“For a lot of them, they don’t have options where they can just pick up and leave . . . there’s a lot of guys out there that have devoted themselves to this industry and they know it really well, but if we go, what’s left of the industry?

“There’s a few guys that just don’t know what’s going to happen there’s a number of stories, just from walking around the mill, like two different guys were about to buy houses, they had to put the hold on that, others were about to sell.

“We’ve got a number of employee assistance program organisations that help us out, including psychologists, (but it’s) the ones who don’t talk, they’re the ones we worry about, and it’s just about working out the best course of action.”

Mr Pendrick’s company has worked with the mill for five years, and this year began working exclusively for the mill, which he thought would mean better outcomes for workers in terms of physical stresses.

His usual job involves everything from massage to hearing and blood pressure tests, but he said ASH had asked him to keep an eye on workers’ mental health too.

“ASH wanted to start a whole new culture around ‘how do we make our staff healthy, how do we keep our staff healthy, how do we make sure they’re not making themselves less well’,” he said.

“By investing in people’s health, it translates to everything, and probably the biggest benefit they’re seeing is that people aren’t trying to hide their injuries when they get to work if you’re sore, or if you’ve done something at home, you can come here, it’s not just if it’s work related.

“We’ve got guys coming through after footy season, and they’ve been bashed around a bit, we’re just trying to keep them healthy and fit and functional, so they can keep doing their job safely.

“This company invests so much in their people, not just in keeping them safe, it’s so far beyond what the average company does.”

The most unfortunate part of the crisis was the timing, Mr Pendrick said, having just set up shop on-site.

“In all honesty, when I was talking to Vince (Hurley, ASH chief executive) in December, he said ‘this is the situation, we hope to resolve it, but go into this completely aware that if we don’t get the contract . . .’

“Initially, my second day here is when the story started, and I thought ‘. . . ok, I’ve just sold my business and now I’m moving in here, what the hell?’.”

The impact of the mill’s potential closure will hit contractors and support staff like Mr Pendrick as much as workers, he said.

“You look at a lot of the businesses, contractors, so many that people don’t even know work out here, if you had to knuckle down all of those local small business that work purely to service the mill, it’s pretty frightening,” he said.

“My wife will have to ramp up to full time and I’ll try to rebuild whatever we’ve got it’s not often you find a business that wants to use every single service that a business can offer then make it the sole provider for you.

“It puts all your eggs in one basket, which I’m happy with providing they stay open.

“There’s been a few sleepless nights, I won’t lie, and a bit of stress.”

As well as the employees, Mr Pendrick said he was very worried about the town of Heyfield itself.

“It’d be a ghost town towns like this don’t do well without a major employer,” he said.

“There’s a lot of phenomenal people in this business who are doing a great job, to have it trip over something as ridiculous as this is heartbreaking.

“It’s sustainable, to use their phrase fingers crossed, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next month, that’s for sure.”