Accident Investigation- Successful Mind-Sets

A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct themJohn C. Maxwell

Accidents are a result of mistakes- we all know that. This article is about how to be smart enough to learn the right lessons, and how to correct them, and it is not always that simple.

Incorrectly drawn conclusions from accidents lead to ineffective corrective measures, and we then get surprised why still keep having the same damages. Albert Einstein once said that “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” This brings us to the foremost requirement of investigations- patience!

Though you must start investigations promptly, don’t jump to conclusions; instead glide through using successful techniques. My favourite, and also the most simple and useful one is asking ‘why’, at least five times and until you can no longer ask why! This requires patience and will-power to ask the most difficult questions, and the strength of character to be prepared to hear the most unpalatable of answers!


Be detail-oriented, which is another key characteristic of the investigator. Ask the essential questions such as ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’. Explore the key components of any system- equipment, environment and people. For example, ask if the equipment was calibrated, tested, maintained and operated in the right way. Ask if the environment had to do anything with it- was it dark, rolling, unfamiliar. Ask if the people were well trained- if not why? Were they tired or over-stressed, or not supervised? Such questions give you the pieces of puzzle you can put together. You see here that I put people last of all during my investigations and I believe this is the way it should be. It is possible that the accident was simply due to human error, or lapse in attention, or inadequate compliance with procedures but this should be the last resort when drawing conclusions. Human error is the root-cause in more than 80% of most accidents but even then it is usually the result of some failings in the system as a whole. The role of the investigator is to find those system-failings and close the gaps.

A key thing to remember during investigations is that is not about blame. To be a good accident investigator, your priority, whether you are a Master, a Chief Engineer, an Auditor or a Superintendent, is about how it can be prevented in future! No sane mariner intentionally collides his ship, injures his thumb or damages a compressor. So what made it happen?
Integrity is important. If you have made a mistake, be prepared to own up for it. If you know someone has made a mistake, say so; hiding facts only allows more accidents to happen. As an investigator, be prepared to cross-check. Be alert to watch for cues which can reveal that a person is not disclosing all the facts. Make use of tools like SVDRs, log books and rough notes. Be prepared with tools such as cameras and note pads to record your observations.

Finally, putting together pieces of the puzzle is teamwork! Brainstorm with as many people, including those involved in the occurrence of the accident, to get to the root-cause, find solutions, and of course later, for effective implementation of corrective actions.

Having the right mind-set and approach is key to successful maritime accident investigations.

Contributed by: Capt. V.S.Parani, MNI, MICS, LLM, MBA. The Author has over 8 years of experience in carrying out DPA duties, and in investigating numerous incidents for a large fleet. The views are his own and do not represent his employer.


Categories: Crew matters, Eng & Tech, Industry, Navigation, Safety

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