Accidents and incidents

A major responsibility for safety professionals is preventing accidents at work. An accident at work can be defined in different ways depending on the situation and context in which it is used. Often also the word incident is used, sometimes as a broader term encompassing ‘an accident' as a specific type of incident, but sometimes the words accidents and incidents refer to two different types of events. These words are easy to confuse, but they are not exactly the same! Incident is more general, and accident is more specific. Prevention of accidents at work focuses on the causes of accidents. 

Incident can refer to any event – big or small, good or bad, intentional or unintentional. A bank robbery, a funny or controversial situation, an argument between celebrities, etc. – all can be described as incidents.

An accident is a bad event caused by error or by chance. Accidents are always unintentional, and they usually result in some damage or injury. A car crash is one example of an accident. If some equipment malfunctions in a factory and injures the workers, that is also an accident. Examples of very minor accidents are when you step on someone’s foot or spill your coffee on someone else. You didn’t want or plan to do it.

All accidents can ALSO be described as incidents – but NOT all incidents are accidents.

If a drunk driver runs his car into a building, that is an accident (he did not intend to do it; it was caused by alcohol and chance). It could also be described as an incident (“The incident occurred on the High Street at around 12:30 AM”).

If three people were arrested after a fight in a bar, that is an incident (but not an accident – because the fight was not by chance; they intended to fight).