Best Job in the World: Enter the ‘Red Zone’

"I started to resent the day off because it would break my routine. Stockholm Syndrome is natural there. You start believing everyone’s bullshit."

The first time I heard about fly-in fly-out (FIFO) work, ever-naive and money-hungry, I thought it was a fabulous idea. Short stints in remote, interesting, dangerous places, working whenever you wanted, or, whenever you needed, getting absolutely loaded in the process.

It seemed to me one of those random yet incredibly lucrative occupations that ask only a minimal, idiosyncratic sacrifice – like being a lollipop person. Weird job, high pay. Good stories, lots of money. Much better than sitting in an office mindlessly plugging digits into a spreadsheet 40-odd hours a week. 

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I wished I was a burly dude. Not that girls don’t do FIFO, but, personally, I wouldn’t do it unless I was a burly dude. If I was, that’s what I would do: FIFO. I’d spend all my FO time on a beach somewhere, drinking pina coladas and driving a sick car.

But then I actually met people who did FIFO. And let me tell you, it’s the furthest thing from “minimal sacrifice” you could get. There are many types of FIFO work, too, some paying far less than others. Some pay about $30 an hour, while you’re on the front lines of an extraction plant that could blow at any moment. 

The jig was up. There’s no such thing as a get-rich quick scheme in this goddamn economy. The sacrifices are real.

But, if not for the money, was such a job worth it? On some level? Just for the experience? A good story? Maybe?

John: Enter the “Red Zone”

I was doing a “special job” as a subbie at a minerals processing plant in an outback town. It wasn’t technically FIFO at that time, for me it was DIDO (drive-in, drive-out) because they’d sent me there from interstate, and put me up in a caravan park about a 20 kilometre drive away from the plant. I didn’t know, but I was in it for the long haul.

It was meant to be for a month, and it turned into five months, but it might as well have been forever.

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Most of the time I lived in a “donga hut” which is about three square metres, with a tiny shower/bathroom in the corner, a TV, a microwave and a single bed. They levelled me up when my missus came to visit and put us in a nicer suite, but otherwise that was home for the duration of my stint. 

The work site was a massive, blackened complex. It had been there for fifty years, but it might as well have been for hundreds. As you’d arrive you’d see it: a huge, hulking, steaming, smoking industrial plant. Every hour or so the sky would just light up orange as they tipped out the molten, poisonous slag.

The job started out at ten hours a day, and wound up being about twelve hours a day. The roster was what we called “13 on, 1 off”, which was, naturally, working for 13 days straight with one day off. That’s the legal limit. It was good that I started out on ten hour days and was slowly introduced to twelve, because what happens is you sleep long, because the job is fatiguing, then you wind up having very little time - like less than four hours after you sleep - to do washing, shopping, recreation activities. Then you have to drive into work, so it’s important to establish a routine. 

And the routine becomes everything.

I started to resent the day off because it would break my routine. Stockholm Syndrome is pretty natural there. You start believing everyone’s bullshit. 

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My job, 95 percent of the time, was to sit in a crib room on site, waiting. On the hour, I’d go down to the work face and check that everything was ok, take a bunch of temperature readings, and check in with the people who were working there. Then I had to go back up to the crib room, enter the data into a spreadsheet, then wait ‘til the next hour to go down again and repeat the whole thing. While I waited I played computer games and the stock market. 

It was one of the easier jobs on site. But it was the same thing, on the hour, every hour, 12 hours a day, 13 days a week. And it went on and on and on and on with very few breaks for five months. 

I was on an award wage, like $28 bucks an hour. But with all the penalties, it was insane. I paid off my credit card debt, took a chunk out of the mortgage, and had some left over. 

The worksite was a “Red Zone” – a toxic environment where you have to wear a respirator, helmet, overalls, gloves, ear muffs – full PPE. On a cool day the weather was 32 degrees. 

I was working night shifts, which were a bit cooler, but sometimes when I started it was still 40 degrees. I’d be in full “chrome leathers” and I’d have to go up to the “hole” to adjust the sensors, where it was 1200 degrees. You couldn’t drink enough water. 

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There’s always going to be a degree of PTSD with any job like that because of what you have to put yourself through to carry it out 100 percent. If anything went wrong, the repercussions would have been massive. They had other parts of the plant where basically, if anything had happened, everything within 20 kilometres would have been razed. It never happened, but things can and do go wrong, which was why we were there, to fix it.

Monty Rakusen via Getty

It was crazy watching a massive storm roll in off the plains. It was like a wall of dust, getting steadily closer. Once the rain hit, the plant was almost completely flooded out. They used excavators to move the water around.

On my one day off a week, I’d luckily made friends at the caravan park, and I’d go shopping and we’d have a BBQ feast together. It was great having people with similar experiences to talk to. To just have any friends there at all, really, was lucky. They worked elsewhere – it’s best not to get involved with the people who work at your work site. It’s highly political. 

If you’re an outsider, just 100 percent mind your business. Be polite, but do not get involved. There’s a lot of racism, cultural tension and hierarchical bullshit. I ended up loving the township and the slower pace of life there. I did not enjoy the racism that everyone seems to have there. It seems to go with the territory.

The Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable. By the end of it, I wanted to stay there and work at that place forever. Mainly because the training on offer in equipment and fire rescue was incredible. I probably would’ve gone to a more favourable shift though, like four on four off. It was quite attractive to me, but it would’ve meant the end of my family if I’d stayed over there. It was incredible to pay off my credit card, and then have some left over.

Would I do it again? I’d love to, but I now realise that family’s way more important than money. And I’ll probably never be in that financial situation again.

Honestly if it came to it, I’d rather be poor.

Got a weird or worst or wildest job experience? We’d love to hear it. Contact Ari at arielle.richards@gmail.com or via the social links below.

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Tagged:

Australia, WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK, jobs, outback, Australia/NZ, mine, rural, bad jobs, weird jobs, extraction, best job in the world, FIFO

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