When is something an accident?

This New York Times story from May reminded me of some people’s distaste for calling laboratory incidents “accidents”: It’s No Accident: Advocates Want to Speak of Car ‘Crashes’ Instead

Roadway fatalities are soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years, resulting from crashes, collisions and other incidents caused by drivers.

Just don’t call them accidents anymore.

That is the position of a growing number of safety advocates, including grass-roots groups, federal officials and state and local leaders across the country. They are campaigning to change a 100-year-old mentality that they say trivializes the single most common cause of traffic incidents: human error.

“When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’ ” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health. …

Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word “accident” conveys, they said.

The semantics of accident came up around the Honolulu Fire Department investigation report about the University of Hawaii explosion. The fire department called the event an “accident” because the explosion wasn’t set off intentionally.

But the University of Hawaii lab was working with a hazardous mixture of gases using inappropriate equipment. The information in the fire department report indicates that the explosion was foreseeable and preventable. Is it therefore appropriate to call the explosion an accident? Does anyone know of a lab incident that could truly be called accidental in that that chemicals involved behaved contrary to their known properties?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I believe what separates the term ‘accident’ from the terms ‘event’ or ‘incident’is the the fact that an accident is by definition unintentional.

    I was myself severely injured in an ‘accident’ that happened because a young woman lost focus when a package slid of the seat next to her. She subsequently reached for the package and when she realized crashing into the car in front of her was eminent, she jerked her steering wheel to the left to avoid the impending accident and strayed into the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane and struck me head on.

    I would describe this as an example of an accident She did not intentionally cause the car crash.

    If, on the other hand, were she speeding or drunk or otherwise intentionally driving recklessly I would have difficulty with the term accident because she would have intentionally set into motion a chain of events that caused the car crash.

    Suffice it to say some incidents or events involving injury or property damage are indeed accidental. We humans are bunglers, we make mistakes. When we lose situational; awareness we can find ourselves in a rapidly deteriorating situation from which there may be no escape.

    Most accidents including airline crashes and other catastrophes are the result a series of events leading up to the accident. Having been a pilot and student of aviation safety I could go on and on about the complexity of airline accidents some of which require as much as a year to analyse with explanation that literally fill a very thick book.

    We tend to view driving an automobile as a simple task possibly because familiarity breeds contempt. Far from simple, driving a car in traffic and on high speed freeways is extremely complex and demands the undivided attention of the driver. That is not to say the driver should focus only on the view and events directly in front of he or she but rather they must continuously scan the their dynamic environment. The driver must know what is going on around him not just in front of him, he must drive defensively and “aim high” or focus more on the cars ahead of the vehicle immediately to his front. If we only focuses on the the car right in front we will not have enough time to respond to threats from our rear or either side. Indeed, most rear end accidents happen when the driver observes illumination of the brake lights of the car directly in front and has no time for a defensive response.

    All dynamic situations demand situational awareness and a plan for the inevitable. There are few situations more fluid and dynamic driving a car in traffic.

    If you lose SA on the LA Freeway you are headed for trouble.

    In closing I must reiterate my opinion that most accidents, though preventable and tragic, are still unintentional therefore the term accident seems appropriate to me.

    Jim Keating

  2. I respectfully disagree with Jim’s assessment that using the term accident is appropriate.

    To me, and many other safety professionals, an accident implies unavoidable. Incidents are unintentional, but reasonably foreseeable consequences of deviations from normal safe operations.

    This point is made in the original post: “Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word “accident” conveys,”.

    The use of incident over accident is the entire point. It is a deliberate refusal to use the word accident. This refusal I agree with and adopt myself.

  3. I am reminded of Beryl Lieff Benderly’s excellent blog post “When will they ever learn” (http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2011/05/when-will-they-ever-learn)where she explains how safety professionals see the use of the word “accident” as a way of dodging responsibility.
    (You linked to it from here at the time.)

  4. In ordinary, every day language, “accident” indicates that something substantial went wrong, and almost immediately people ask “What went wrong?” or “Was someone to blame?”

    In my 37 years as an organic chemist in an industrial laboratory, we unfortunately had a few accidents, which were never identified as incidents.

    Again, in every day language, an incident doesn’t seem very substantial and might describe my dropping of my pencil on the floor.

  5. I would propose that anything that occurs is an “incident” (we’re counting incidents of many things, not just accidents, all the time, to develop statistics) and an “accident” is that subset of incidents that are unexpected and/or unintended. The latter may be predictable with some level of likelihood, but to those involved that chance is so diminishingly small as to be given little or no thought. Remember, all accidents are not bad; many useful discoveries have been accidental!

  6. I agree largely with Jim, and disagree with Ian. The term accident implies unintentional. Merriam-Webster also agrees with this as it defines accident as “a sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury”.

    The key point to consider is whether negligence caused the accident. The University of Hawaii explosion and a car crash caused by a drunk driver are both accidents as neither was intended. But the causes of both accidents can rightfully be attributed to negligence. The legal, insurance, fire, and police professions accept the term accident as it was intended, but then try to determine if it was negligence that caused the accident. I think that we can do the same with safety in the chemical profession and a semantic distinction between accident and incident is not needed.

  7. I thought accident officially meant something for which you file an insurance claim and for which action is required. An incident is a lesser term which is only information in case of future changes.

    And, possibly of interest is that incidente is Italian for accident.

  8. I believe that accidents used to occur but only in very special cases but the rate of fatalities now prove that they are not accidents any more but acts of carelessness on the side of users and designers.

  9. Both the IAEA and NEC call major adverse events “accidents” and lesser events “incidents.” It may be hard to move away from these standard usages.
    At times, antinuclear activists have derided the word “incident” as a euphemism downplaying the significance of the event. Now we are giving “accident” the same treatment. The confusion is that the same word can mean cause (“it was an accident”) and outcome (“car accident on I-5”). “Crash” is a good outcome word for cars, but what is a reasonably generic replacement word for lab and industrial accidents? For specific cases, we can be explicit: “UH explosion” (or “maiming”), “UCLA fire” (or “fatality”), etc. Is there really a better word to use in the collective case (e.g., “industrial accident prevention”)?