BW Maritime – supporting crew mental health

Jan 19 2022

Patrick Kirkman, general manager for insurance with BW Maritime, explained what his company does to support crew mental health, speaking at the IUMI 2021 event.

Patrick Kirkman, general Manager, Insurance with BW Maritime Pte Ltd, explained what his company does to support crew mental health, and what the industry can do.


In the maritime sector, the BW Group operates product tankers (through its subsidiary Hafnia), ethylene and gas carriers, LNG, LPG and dry cargo vessels. Mr Kirkman was speaking at the annual event of the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) in September.


Crew mental health “is not a unique issue with my company, it is an industry wide issue. An issue which, in the wider environment, has only recently become a topic people are willing to talk about,” he said.


Mental health “is not an issue unique to shipping. But there's no other careers out there when you're away from your family for such a long time, on a restricted space with people you may or may not have known before.”


“We have a unique set of circumstances that affect us with our crew onboard our ships.”


“Our crews are the heartbeat of our companies, from them flows how we perform. More than the individual shipping company, it is how the industry performs.”


“If we had a healthy happy crew, hopefully ships are better maintained, better run.”


That leads to business benefits, and will help achieve decarbonisation objectives. Also, “if we have a happy crew, we present an attractive career for others to come in, and hopefully we retain good crew to take our businesses forward,” he said.


Today’s maritime life

Today’s maritime life is improved in many ways, with double hull tankers, better designed ships, better communications, better navigational aids.


Although crew are not necessarily trained to use these things. “We forget that with the new designs, new equipment, issues of competency arise.


“We need to ensure we give them the training. In our ships we don't take out spanners and screwdrivers as often as we used to. Quite often, it’s a laptop plugged in, a diagnostics test.”


Shipping regulators are focussed on how many people are onboard, not whether we have the right people in the right roles to do the necessary tasks. “Flag, for example, is focused on numbers. ‘Do you have a safe manning level.’ It doesn’t focus on roles. There are roles which used to exist and don't exist now, and others take on.”


A big cause of stress is piracy and corrupt port officials. “In West Africa, the first thing someone says when they come onboard, I want cigarettes. We have to say we have zero tolerance for bribery. Then there’s a whole manner of issues arising.”


“There’s the Covid situation. The morale impact this has on our crews - not just because of crew being onboard ships with people infected, also they worry about families at home.”


“The ability to have port leave has evaporated. All of this brings greater stress upon crews who are manning the ships.”


A coordinated approach

One of the challenges with seafarer health is lack of data. “There isn't any real useful macro level data. We don't have any systematic analysis. We don't have an effective coordinated approach [for] looking at how bad health issues are onboard ships and how to approach them. Most of the data is data that companies like mine have.”


“This risks there being an ad hoc approach to dealing with situations, which may or may not be the most effective way of doing it.”


“It would be better if the industry were working in a more coordinated fashion.”


“We have to recognise there has been progress,” including in “recognition there is a problem.” [But] “we have to look at the causes not the symptoms. That brings us back to having a better coordinated industry approach.”


“We need to connect much more. We shouldn’t have a situation where ITF was saying to crew go on strike so you can force the issue to be repatriated early. Shipowners are saying the environment is not right to do that. We're doing our best.”


“There needs to be a lot more talking a lot earlier so we can come up with the right solutions.”


Doing more for crew

Good companies should take away stress, support development and training, attract the highest quality crew they can and hopefully retain, he said.


Crew retention “is something I think companies haven’t focused on enough.”


One central pillar for keeping crew, which BW Maritime is focussing on, is to “allow the crew to know there is a back to work policy.”


“If you come forward, you have a mental issue or something you want to bring to our attention, you’re not going to be judged, you’re not going to lose your job.”


There may occasionally be specific safety reasons where a crewmember cannot come back to work, “but you need to create an environment where that's the exception not the rule.”


“They know the company is going to look after them. That is incredibly important.”


“From a shipowner’s perspective, we all need to have a holistic approach, we need to identify the issues which could help make the life of the crew better, and also ameliorate some of the downsides.”


“You need good food. Not all ships have good food. When you can, address shore leave. Have good recreational facilities. Have good crew communal facilities - painted in colours rather than slate grey. Having those antibullying, anti-harassment policies in place.”


You need reinforcement of the anti-harassment policy, good clear leadership, don't have mixed messages being sent.


You need to “recognise that life at sea can be lonely and isolating, and there can be boredom.”


One of the most important factors in helping crew maintain lower stress levels is their level of confidence in how people will be treated if things go wrong, he said. “You need to get away from that blame culture, you need a just culture.”


A just culture is defined as one which recognises that mistakes a usually a result of the organisational culture, not something one person did.


“You've got to create the cultural environment where a just culture is integral to the way the company operates. They are not hollow words.”


“If it’s not [part of the culture] you're never going to address the wider mental health issues. You’ve got to get rid of the stigma, ‘if you have a mental health issue you’re going to be judged’. That will embolden and empower the crew to come forward. You need that sort of respectful interaction.”


You have a good crew manager who knows a good crew, who ensures that all of this is carried out, and not lip services.”


Company senior management need to be part of that first responder team. “If an issue is raised to us, we're there to help out.”


And “it doesn’t matter if you do all of that if the crew believe they're going to lose their jobs. They are going to seize up. You've got to have this supportive culture - and one which ensures job safety.”

BW Maritime

One way BW Maritime achieves this is by helping crew “make sorting out your life on board a ship fun,” including with games, social activity and rewards.


“If you have your fitness and wellbeing programs, you make them fun, you make them competitive. You have the interaction activities, you have rewards. That makes people want to take part. You have to create this sense of well-being where everyone supports one another.”


It is possible to bring in people’s faiths, so religion “is built into the culture of the ship and the company.”


Other supports include providing access to psychological help, medical care such as through International SOS, and free broadband.


BW Maritime has 50 per cent of its crew vaccinated. “It is a challenge. you have to go for J+J [vaccine] and do it in one shot. Or be quite clear about the itinerary of the ship - so if you have one jab you can get back in time to have the next.”


“I can understand why a large part of the world's crew have yet to be vaccinated.”


What we can see going forward, we will be vaccinating our crew ashore - so we deal with it onboard the ship and ashore.”


What crew can do

Crew themselves need to be ‘empowered’ to look after their health, and encouraged to speak to counsellors, with confidence that their concerns will be treated in absolute confidence. “Were that not the case, it simply wouldn't work.”


Other crew members are also the ‘first responders’ to support someone in trouble.


“That comes back to this sense of family, everybody being as one onboard the ship, colleagues looking after other colleagues. And if they see some behaviour they can report to the 'old man' on the ship.”


What regulators can do

Fine words from governments and regulators about crew being “key workers” are not put into practise. “We need local officials to show a bit more sympathy,” he said.


“We had a case recently where we had two crew who were affected by Covid in the US. We wanted to send them ashore, the Customs and Border Control immediately sent them back and said, ‘you quarantine them onboard.’”


“Well fine in one sense, if the condition deteriorated you can shift them off the ship to hospital. But the effect on the remaining crew, even though we isolated the two crew, was immense. We put a doctor onboard. We didn’t have any sympathy from local officials.”


This was in Texas. “We had a ship in California with a completely different attitude.”


“This NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] approach has to stop.”


Mr Kirkman ended his talk with a quote from Barack Obama, “We have to acknowledge the progress we madebut understand that we still have a long way to go. That things are better, but still not good enough.”


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