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Historically, merchant seafaring was the most hazardous occupation in Britain. However, fatal accident rates have fallen sharply in the last 30 years.To establish the causes of all fatal accidents and their trends among seafarers who were employed in UK merchant shipping from 1919 to 2005 and to compare with those in the general workforce and in other industries.A historical study, based on examinations of death inquiry files from 1976 to 2005 and official mortality returns from 1919 to 1975, with a total population of 11.90 million seafarer-years at risk.From 1919 to 2005, there were 17 386 deaths from accidents in UK shipping, 6074 from shipping disasters and 11 312 from personal accidents. Over time, there were large reductions in mortality rates for all the main types of fatal accident, except accidents on deck. Major causes of mortality from shipping disasters were vessels foundering in typhoons, storms and severe gales, explosions in cargo holds and collisions in poor visibility. Fatal accident rates were higher among British seafarers than among Lascars. The relative risk of an accident in UK shipping—compared with the general British workforce—was similar in 2001 to that in 1961.There have been major improvements in health and safety that have led to substantial reductions in fatal accident rates in UK merchant shipping throughout most of the last 90 years. This mirrors comparable improvements in the fatal accident rate among the general workforce of Great Britain.