Fundamentals of Accident Investigation: the benefits of Cranfield's flagship course

By Will Tutton - September 21, 2020

For an accident investigation to be effective, investigators have to have the right skills and knowledge to make it so. Many of us start out as accident investigators with a lot of knowledge about safety and the operational environment we work in, but often with little experience and knowledge of accident investigation. This is where the Cranfield Fundamentals of Accident Investigation course comes in.

I came to accident investigation through a career as a human factors engineer working in defence, who had become involved with a number of safety-critical projects and had developed an interest in the role of accident investigation to improve safety. I had been hugely lucky to get a role with the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) as their first specialist human factors inspector. While I’m probably counted as an experienced human factors engineer, being a chartered human factors practitioner, I was a marine novice and had never led an investigation.

All the Accident Investigation Branches within the Department of Transport use the Fundamentals of Accident Investigation course as the first step to being an accredited inspector, so I was looking forward to attending the Cranfield course within two weeks of starting work at MAIB. I had mixed preconceptions about going on the course. As a human factors practitioner with safety experience I was well versed in interviewing, analysis methods and safety theories and practice, but wanted to know more about the nitty gritty of accident investigation. This included wanting to know more about the practicalities of how to manage an investigation, how should we handle the media or legal proceeding, how do we work with next of kin, how do we handle dealing with fatalities and much more.

The course answered all these questions, as well as many I hadn’t considered. It covered pretty much everything you could wish; from the basic process of investigation, the hazards and safety aspects, how to conduct effective interviews, forensics, analysis methods, regulations and powers of investigators, as well as the contributory human aspects of accidents and how to pitch your recommendations to have the greatest impact. The course is domain agnostic, so you learn as a group about each other’s environments. This was really valuable since you gain new insights that won’t or can’t be taught and can often translate from another area to your area of practice, particularly if trying to work out how you want to do things. Of course, there were areas where I wanted to know more, but without the course I wouldn’t have known what to find out about.

The three weeks spent at Cranfield have been invaluable to my role at MAIB and enabled me to get up to speed in the best way possible. I would argue it is one of the best training experiences I have had in my twenty-odd-year career. The course started gently but quickly ramped up with training sessions specifically designed to ensure you have the essential knowledge to be an effective accident investigator, regardless of where you work, whether as a state, freelance, or company-based investigator.

Is it challenging? Yes absolutely, there are parts of the course which you will find difficult no matter what your experience, but it is highly rewarding and good to be tested in a safe environment. For example, for the main exercise I found myself leading a team comprising five different nationalities, including the Head of the Defence Accident Investigation Branch and experienced investigators. I found myself challenged, and indeed questioning whether accident investigation was for me. I know now, because of the course, that it is and that there is huge societal benefit from being involved in this area of safety improvement. The knowledge and reputation of the guest lecturers is the highest possible and while some of the topics are difficult, the course directors, Alan and Leigh, are there to guide and steer you, even when you don’t know you need it!

In short, if you are new to accident investigation, or have experience but never had any formal training, this course is for you. It provides not only a solid grounding, but also, as I found, will improve your confidence in being able to be a good and effective investigator.

Will Tutton works for UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). Will is their first specialist human factors inspector and completed the Fundamentals of Accident Investigation course in September 2019.