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I realise that the word accident is usually applied to any kind of unwanted and unpleasant incident but accident has a very clear and well defined meaning. According to my dictionary an accident is an unforeseen or unexpected event; a chance.

The distinction between an accident and, what is better called an incident, was drawn to my attention by road safety activists who object to a car crash resulting from drunken driving being routinely described as an accident. The activists argue that driving, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, makes a car crash seem less like an accident and more like an easily foreseen certainty. Their view makes a very good point, as it’s up to the courts to decide if a crash is an accident or not. Most police forces have taken this idea on-board and prior to any court decision, a crash is usually described as a road traffic collision (RTC) or road traffic incident (RTI).

As a vocationalist, I wish to extend this reasoning into the sphere of workplace activities.

The Health & Safety at Work Act (HSAWA) requires that a risk assessment is carried out before carrying out any work based activity. One way of describing a risk assessment is to say that all reasonable measures must be taken to identify hazards and to minimise injury and damage to property. Contrary to widespread false belief, no reasonable activities are prohibited. It is quite usual for extremely hazardous activities to be carried out (building tunnels and bridges for example) as long as every reasonable precaution is taken and the costs are out outweighed by the benefits. The word reasonable suggests that in the real world everything is not possible to predict. Following an unfortunate incident, as long as it could not be reasonably foreseen, it will be deemed an accident and while lessons must be learned it is not usual to apportion blame.

I’m sure there may be some among you who will think I’m splitting hairs and that it’s ‘elf and safety gone mad! Yet by using words accurately, we can both help to prevent over-cautiousness as well as promoting proper consideration for the likely outcomes of our actions.

So, when preventable harm is incurred as a result of thoughtless actions it must not be thought of as accident. If I were to hurt myself by deliberately jumping off a cliff, would this be an accident or the predictable outcome of something that I did?

Eric Baker @bakertraining

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