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Investigating accidents in the UK


Why have accident inquiries?

For 150 years, formal inquiries have been held following accidents at sea to British ships. Discover why investigations are conducted, how the investigators set about finding what has gone wrong, and what is done to prevent the accident happening again.

Why are investigations carried out?

In 1836 a Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament published a shocking report showing just how much life and property had been lost because of shipwrecks around the British coast. For the three years 1833 to 1835, no fewer than 1700 ships were lost, with the loss of over 3400 lives. Something had to be done to increase the skills and knowledge of officers who sailed the ships. Improvements had to be made to the construction of ships, and harbours of refuge where ships could shelter from gales.

However, it took a long time before anything was done. It was not until the 1850s that officers in ships over a certain size were required by law to have an appropriate certificate to show they were competent in seamanship and navigation. Along with this requirement, powers were created to investigate accidents that placed the ship and the lives of those on board in danger. These investigations were aimed at finding the cause of the accident. If the conduct of any officer with a certificate was called into question, his certificate could be suspended or even cancelled.

Who carries them out?

In the 1850s, a government department, the Board of Trade, was made responsible for enforcing regulations concerning merchant ships and seamen. This included being responsible for investigating accidents at sea.

Over the years, there have been changes in whom the Board of Trade appointed to investigate accidents. Merchant ship masters were used but although they knew all about ships and seamanship, they knew less about the law. Magistrates knew about the law but not about ships and the sea. In the 1870s, a Wreck Commissioner was appointed who built up a great deal of expertise, but this proved a heavy burden for just one man. Eventually the responsibility fell on Board of Trade officers, usually themselves former masters [ definition]. This changed with the setting up of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in 1989. Now investigating officials are independent of those who set and monitor standards of ship and seafarer safety. The inspectors may have to investigate and judge the work of these marine surveyors, as well as crew and shipowners.

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