If I go bungee jumping off a bridge that is 200 feet high and I unintentionally use a bungee cord that is 197 feet long, do I have an "accident" or an "incident"?
If I fail to look both ways before crossing a street and I get struck by an oncoming vehicle when I enter the road, is it an "accident" or an "incident"?
Perhaps one term could be used for events that a reasonable and prudent person would say are unavoidable or beyond practical control (e.g., A five-ton meteor falls from the sky and smashes my house, or late at night a large white-tail deer leaps into the road from behind some bushes and collides with an approaching car.) By contrast, the other term could be used for any event, regardless of severity, that has unintended, negative consequences (i.e. damage, injury, etc.) but which could have been easily avoided by simple and prudent measures (e.g., measure the cord, look both ways, read the SDS and warning label, etc.)
It seems to me that the intent is to differentiate between those events that are plausibly "beyond control" and those which are caused by indifference, carelessness, negligence, or ignorance. To improve safety, we need to ensure claims of the former are not used to re-direct responsibility and attention away from the latter.
Very well said Mike. Everyone understands what accident means. Only the "safety gurus" that are politically correct have any idea of what an incident means (lawn sprinkler does not work?).
Let's quit the obtuse definitions and replace it with the common usage.
S.Z. Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP
Center for Safety & Health Sustainability
I'm probably fighting a losing battle here, but as someone deeply involved in worker education, I don't much like substituting "incident" for "accident." The primary Oxford Dictionary definition of "accident" is:
An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury:
And while one can argue that an event should have been foreseen, obviously it wasn't, and those involved certainly didn't expect or intend it to happen. And while the definition uses the word "incident" it qualifies it as unexpected, unintentional, and with a bad outcome.
Here's the British English definition from the Cambridge Dictionary:
And if you want gold old American English, this is Merriam-Webster:
A sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury.
Some secondary definitions include the notion that an accident happens "by chance," which is troublesome. But at some level, chance is an element of most accidents. A badly-designed process may work smoothly 100 times, only to catastrophically fail at the 101st. We tend to say that it was bound to happen someday. The fact that it happened that day was by chance, even though a deeper analysis of all the factors would eliminate randomness.
My problem with "incident" is that it sounds, well, "incidental." Nobody says their loved one died in a traffic incident. We don't look back on a tragic event and say it was an "incident waiting to happen." In fact, the Oxford Dictionary defines "accident waiting to happen" as:
A potentially disastrous situation, typically caused by negligent or faulty procedures.
Which is pretty much perfect.
How we use words matters. I've seen a room full of workers roll their eyes when a safety consultant tells them that the fatality last week was an "incident." In my own worker education I tend to use "accident" when somebody got killed or injured. We teach "Incident Investigation" classes, but there we use the word because we are also concerned with investigating near misses and process upsets or deviations. I tend to use "event" with safety and health specialists
Michael J. Wright
Director of Health, Safety and Environment
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