It is clearly reasonable to provide definitions based on drawing a distinction between an event that harms a person, or a number of people, and one that damages only plant or equipment. It is possible that events may occur which cause significant damage to plant and equipment, and yet injure no one. 

There may still be advantages for an organisation in classifying such events as accidents, and investigating them thoroughly; it may be possible to take preventative action and avoid similar failures or damage in the future.

Investigations of more minor incidents and “near misses” – events that may be regarded as a “close shave” – may also be useful. Both incidents and near misses may provide valuable information if investigated, because the aetiology of near misses, incidents and accidents is believed to be similar. 

That is, these events are often believed to have similar causes. However, minor events occur much more frequently than major ones, and therefore investigation of near misses and incidents may allow for corrective action to be taken before a similar set of circumstances leads to a more serious accident. 

Some authors would suggest that such events provide “free lessons” in organisational safety and safety deficiencies. This is why confidential reporting schemes are used in several industries to encourage reporting of near misses and incidents.

Such schemes do have their limitations, but they may help organisations to capture this type of safety information in an anonymous format, without reliance on the formal management reporting schemes which employees can be reluctant to engage with.

As an example of the relative frequencies of near misses and incidents to accidents, consider the data in Figure below. This shows the ratio of major injury accidents to minor injury accidents and non-injury accidents, from HSE statistics.

Relationship between major injuries, minor injuries and non-injury accidents

In reality, whatever definition is selected, it is clear that accidents are events with undesired outcomes, which could include injury or fatality to persons, and/or damage to plant and/or equipment. So, the term “accident” will apply to events which meet this criteria, whether they might be known as incidents or accidents in other settings, and whether they may be called individual, organisational or system accidents in other texts.

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