So when is an accident not an accident?

It is a matter of semantics and understanding the definition. For those who read this blog loyally, you know that I tend to use the word “incident” far more than I use the word “accident.” There are some in the public or among safey professionals who can often use these words interchangeably.

But that is actually the wrong way to go about things.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris Yarzab via a Creative Commons license] It is incidents like this which are reported as "accidents" that leads to a misconception of what a real accident is, compared to just an incident. We all should take responsibility to educate about the difference.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris Yarzab via a Creative Commons license]
It is incidents like this which are reported as “accidents” that leads to a misconception of what a real accident is, compared to just an incident. We all should take responsibility to educate about the difference.

Carl Metzgar of Winston-Salem, N.C., recently took a look at a couple of classic articles from Injury Prevention magazine, which took an angle of understanding how the word “accident” is used by the general public. And this could also include the media to a certain extent, as often we hear stories on the news about “accidents” that led to major injuries or deaths.

But were they really accidents, as the public and media use the word?

Metzgar posts a review of the articles about accidents in the November 2015 issue of Professional Safety magazine, and notes that the confusion about the word “accident” is not really explained away or addressed. The article merely discusses a phone survey of people in the general public to get their opinions about accidents and how they are defined.

The survey found a couple of interesting items:

  • Five of six respondents eqated accident with something that was preventable.
  • Seven of 10 said that accidents could be prevented, even if they could not be predicted.

Let’s think about that for a second. Seven in 10 people think that accidents are preventable occurrences, even if they could not be predicted?

If an accident is unpredictable, does it make sense that people canot have thigns to place in order to prevent that which is unpredictable? If something can’t be predicted, then it’s very difficult to prevent it from happening. Prevention assumes that something is predictable as a possible outcome.

The sad part is that safety professionals and others have not made the effort to be more precise in language, choosing a different word than “accident” to describe something that is preventable and has an actual cause. For decades the public has just used the word “accident” to refer to every incident that is not “normal,” whether it was preventable or not.

The word accident has a very specific meaning, and we owe it to ourselves and our profession to educate the public about this. We all need to be more deliberate and thoughtful about when we use the word “accident.”

An accident is something that could not be prevented and really was an incident of chance. In safety, we know that accidents in this definition are very rare. We have to practice not calling everything accidents, but incidents – events that have a certain predictability to them because they usually have a root cause that can be discovered and addressed in the future to mitigate the incidents happening in the future.

Perhaps we should resolve this year to do a better job of providing the right definition and usage of the word “accident” to the public and to the media so understanding can improve and confusion can be mitigated.

Why?

The public could take a role in helping prevent incidents. If they are conditioned to know that everything is an “accident,” they will likely just assume it’s chance and won’t take steps to improve their own safety by changing some of what they do so the “accident” doesn’t happen to them.

When something is given up to chance, people will believe they have no control over what happens, but in most cases that is not true. Take a look at car “accidents” on the roads. Insurance companies and police departments always investigate these “accidents” and ultimately find a cause, which means it didn’t just happen by some roll of the dice. One driver or another did something wrong, or a vehicle malfunctioned, or one driver was drunk or speeding, and so on.

It’s time that maybe we stop calling these kinds of events “accidents” and start calling them incidents, where people who drive cars can learn the causes and take steps necessary to reduce the chances of being in one of these incidents – and cutting down the “chance” of an “accident.”