Research news

RNLI commissions literature review on swimming skills and links to drowning

20 February 2017

During 2016, the RNLI commissioned research into the protective effect of swimming skills in high-income countries. The project involved a combination of a literature search, expert consultations, desk-based reviews of interventions (similar to our own Swim Safe and Hit the Surf programmes) and identifying international drowning prevention policies to understand whether swimming skills protect people from the risk of drowning in open water.

The study criteria were as follows:

  • high-income countries
  • open-water drowning
  • age-focused (0-young adults)
  • related to Swim Safe delivery model.

The research questions were designed to help us gain an understanding of:

  • Do swimming skills protect people from risk of drowning in open water?
  • What methods best deliver swimming skills?
  • How do other countries approach this issue?

The main findings of the report highlighted limited evidence of links between swimming skills and risk of drowning due to:

  • measurement challenges
  • variable definitions
  • cultural biases.

But swimming skills were still consistently recommended.

Other issues:

  • skills learned in closed-water conditions often not transferrable to open-water environments
  • significant gaps in knowledge on reported swimming ability
  • no clear pattern in reported ability and drowning
  • a protective effect on children aged 1-4 (one study, very large confidence interval)
  • no effect on 5-19 year-olds
  • no effect from informal swimming lessons
  • statistically significant links between swimming lessons or swim safety interventions and risk of drowning, but in developing world.

The RNLI commissioned Cloud Chamber, an evaluation and research consultancy, to conduct this project. Read the full report.

Research commissioned on people’s experiences of serious incidents at sea and on the coast

11 January 2017

The RNLI has commissioned new research with the aim of better understanding what leads up to and contributes to serious incidents, including those that result in self-rescue or rescue, and those that are fatal.

The RNLI’s Operational Research Unit has access to data and research relating to serious incidents through Returns of Service (filled in at lifeboat stations after service call outs) and fatality databases. However, although this data is invaluable in helping the organisation to understand when and where a serious incident occurs and who it happens to, it doesn’t really help us understand exactly what happens, how and why.

This project involves carrying out a number of in-depth interviews with survivors and witnesses of coastal water-related serious incidents - to inform the RNLI’s prevention strategies and campaigns and address a gap in our understanding of:

  • how people experience water-related fatalities and serious incidents
  • the factors influencing these incidents
  • the impact these incidents have on local communities (including social, behavioural and other impacts).

The RNLI has commissioned NatCen Social Research, an independent not-for-profit research organisation, to conduct this new project. NatCen has over 40 years’ experience, including carrying out research about sensitive issues.

NatCen would like to speak with people who have experienced or witnessed an incident at sea or on the coast during the period 2012-16.

We understand that this may be a difficult subject to discuss, but it will help the RNLI develop prevention strategies and campaigns that keep people safe at sea and on the coast.

Taking part in the study is completely voluntary and participants are free to change their mind about their involvement at any time.

Unfortunately NatCen cannot speak with people who have experienced an incident where an investigation is ongoing, nor can they speak to those aged under 18 years.

The research will be published on RNLI and NatCen websites later in 2017 and will not identify anyone who took part in the study.

The NatCen website gives more detail on the research, including FAQs and how to register your interest for the study.

If you would like to speak to a member of the study team at NatCen please email

If you would like to contact the RNLI to ask about the study or check anything in relation to the study please email

RNLI commissions research on commercial fishing incidents

15 January 2016

In 2015, teams in the Health and Safety Laboratory’s (HSL) Mathematical Sciences Unit and Human Sciences Unit were commissioned by the RNLI, along with our research partners Seafish and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), to further develop our understanding regarding the principal causes of serious non-fatal injuries to crew working onboard UK commercial fishing vessels.

Commercial fishing is recognised as one of the riskiest occupations in the UK. While there is some evidence of fatal injuries to the crew of commercial fishing vessels declining over recent years, the number of serious non-fatal injuries suffered by fishing crew remains high.

In order to bring about the levels of reduction in injury risk desired, it was felt that a more comprehensive, robust evidence base was needed on the relative role played by machinery design, human factors and environmental factors for the different types of safety incidents that occur. HSL was commissioned to carry out research to provide such evidence.

The findings of the work are being used by RNLI to inform a safety awareness campaign planned following completion of the research. Seafish will also be using the findings to help inform improvements to and direction of future training courses.

The research was informed by a quantitative analysis of data on serious safety incidents occurring onboard UK commercial fishing vessels (provided by the MAIB), a qualitative review of supplementary incident investigation report material, and interviews with a number of fishing industry experts.

A greater risk was found to be associated with particular categories of fishing activity, notably the catching of crabs and lobsters, and when crew were actively shooting and hauling fishing gear, particularly crab and lobster pots.

HSL’s research identified a number of key challenges that are considered to be barriers to improving safety, including:

  • perceptions of risk
  • adherence to safety procedures, particularly when carrying out repetitive tasks
  • skill and competency, particularly in relation to the operation of deck machinery and work on multi-use vessels.
In addition, other challenges identified include:
  • the design and maintenance of certain deck machinery
  • typical workspaces
  • vessel manning levels
  • the adequacy of task-specific risk assessments
  • the safety management systems operated.

The research suggested a number of solutions to meet these challenges, including:

  • the fitting of emergency-stop devices to deck machinery
  • the development of a bespoke safety management system for specific implementation onboard commercial fishing vessels
  • the adoption of key aspects of a safety awareness programme implemented with success by a partner fishing fleet
  • the use of a bespoke participatory method for promoting implementation of technical safety measures across the UK fleet.

In order to help RNLI and its research partners develop a suitably targeted safety improvement strategy for rollout across the UK commercial fishing sector, the research offered a number of evidence-based recommendations for consideration over the short term and medium to long term.  Shorter term recommendations included:

  • targeting the planned safety awareness campaign at highlighting the injury risks associated with operating deck machinery
  • demonstrating the personal susceptibility of crew to serious injury when operating such machinery
  • investigating the practicalities of retrofitting emergency-stop devices to deck machinery.

The full report is available here.

New rip currents website launched in partnership with Plymouth University

30 June 2014

A new website was launched today to provide an up-to-date resource for surf lifesavers and beach users on the basics of rip currents in the UK.  The website is the culmination of a 3-year partnership between the RNLI and Plymouth University.

You can visit the new rip currents website here.

Better use of probabilistic weather information

30 June 2014

The RNLI’s Operations Research Unit has recently completed a partnership with the London School of Economics and Oxford University, using Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funding.

The 6-month study examined how highly localised probabilistic weather forecasts could help the RNLI’s staff and volunteers to make operational decisions that ensure the safety of our crew.

You can find out more about the study on the NERC website.

Watersports participation increases to highest level since 2007

11 February 2014

Participation in core boating and watersports activities increased in 2013 to its highest level since 2007, according to research funded by a consortium that includes the RNLI.

Participation levels are an important determinant of the demand for RNLI services.

Read the British Marine Federation’s press release on the research and download the summary report.