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Incidents versus Accidents

By Elsabé Steyn on 29 March 2017

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.



The clever guys define an accident as an unplanned and uncontrolled event in which the action or reaction of an object, substance, person or radiation results in personal injury or the probability thereof. Variations on this definition can be found throughout safety literature. 



An incident usually refers to an unexpected event that did not cause injury or damage this time but had the potential. "Near miss" or "dangerous occurrence" are also terms for an event that could have caused harm but did not.


In the safety industry we sometimes tend to muddle this a bit.  We call all those events that resulted in some form of damage or injury, accidents (as per the definition), but when we refer to ALL events collectively (accidents and incidents) we tend to say “incidents” – basically to say we also mean near misses and dangerous occurrences in the context used.


Regardless of what you want to call it – you want to manage your incidents.  All of them. 


Incident Management

Proper Incident Management relies on a couple of things:

  • 100% of all near misses reported – workforce education in this regard is key.  They need to understand why they have to report them.
  • All the information you need to prevent your serious accidents (fatalities and permanent disabilities etc.) is contained in your near misses and first aid cases – they are your warning bells.  So listen.
  • Derive the correct conclusions and trends from all incidents reported – a well setup excel spreadsheet can do this for you.
  • Act on the trends – fix the problems.
  • Quick and effective emergency response.


Promote and reward good incident reporting!


About the Author

Elsabé Steyn, Health and Safety Manager at Aurecon has more than 28 years' experience in the field of occupational health and safety. Her expertise includes the design, implementation and monitoring, on various levels, of OHS management systems. Elsabe is currently working at a large engineering consultancy as H&S Manager for their major and capital projects.  Her experience has been obtained mainly in the construction, mining, heavy, food, manufacturing, transportation and civil infrastructure industries.