If you, like much of the UK, have been absorbed in the new BBC drama 'Vigil' involving a death and subsequent investigation onboard a fictional UK nuclear submarine you may be wondering how such incidents are dealt with in the real world.

Here, we detail what steps need to be taken in the event of a death at sea and provide some insight from our expert team on the important steps to be followed as well as setting out the various different authorities that may be involved in the investigation.

Immediate response

In the event of a death the vessel or installation should notify the Coastguard and Police in the first instance.

However, in addition to the police there is also a legal duty to notify other regulatory bodies including the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and possibly Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA). The HSE need only be contacted when the death occurs on an offshore installation operating on the UKCS.

There are legal consequences for failing to notify the correct bodies and/or for failing to do so in the correct way (e.g. for using HSE's prescribed ROGI form).

The MCA and HSE are both regulators of health and safety matters and they have the power to report individuals and companies for breaches of the law in the criminal courts. In Scotland any prosecution will be brought by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, but in England and Wales HSE/MCA can commence prosecution proceedings directly. Usually, the HSE deals with land-based incidents, but in the event of an incident onboard an offshore installation/rig, the HSE has jurisdiction.

The remit of the MAIB, however, is slightly different. Technically they are not tasked with 'fault-finding' following an incident. Their role is to investigate the incident to understand 'how' and 'why' it occurred with the aim of preventing recurrence in future. MAIB's investigation findings are published online and are publicly available. It is therefore equally important that crews take time to ensure the MAIB has a clear and full understanding of events, and that companies engage in the MAIB's consultation process in relation to the draft report

Once the authorities attend the vessel/installation they will, normally, assume control of the post-incident scene and investigation. You could be required, prior to their arrival, to take certain actions or, importantly, to refrain from taking certain actions. This usually relates to evidence preservation such as not touching or moving any equipment that has been involved or preventing access to the incident scene.

Ingathering paperwork pertinent to the incident is very important and can often be overlooked in the immediate shock of an incident. Documents including the vessel's logbook for the day should be complete, including details of any rescue operation and contacting the authorities. Risk assessments and written safe systems of work for the task being carried out at the time of the incident must be retained. If these documents are electronically available, then it can be helpful to authorities to print hard copies. In the event that a document exists only in single hard copy, if possible, ensure a full and legible copy is taken in case the original is removed by the authorities.

Your own investigation

In addition to the "official" investigation, it is a requirement under UK health and safety law that an employer undertake its own investigation into an incident.

Dealing with a fatality in any industry is an extremely difficult process for all involved and dealing with such a situation offshore presents additional challenges and requires good working knowledge of the legal obligations as well as good understanding of the practicalities of operating in such an industry. If you are unfamiliar with the investigation process, then contacting the ship's agents or onshore office and insurers is a valuable step as they can put you in touch with appropriate legal advisers. Legal advisers can set up a legally privileged accident investigation which offers the client (be that the vessel or rig owner/operator) some legal protection during a regulatory investigation.

If there is CCTV available ensure copies are made as soon as possible so that if the authorities request a copy you do not lose access to it for the purposes of your own investigation. CCTV systems often write over older footage after just a few days so it is recommended that this be actioned as soon as possible.

In addition to record keeping discussed above, taking photographs of the incident scene and noting statements from other crew members who were present at the time is very important. Bear in mind, once the official investigation has concluded there may be civil claims presented for injury. Often these claims can be presented some time after the incident when memories have faded and crew members have moved on to other vessels/businesses. Therefore, having full, detailed statements (including a personal number or email address so that departing crew can be contacted in future) is a very valuable piece of evidence.

If you require any further information on this topic, please contact our team below. You can also download our free health & safety app here.


    Victoria Anderson

    Senior Associate