Posted on: April 12, 2022

What is the Difference Between Accidents and Incidents?

accidents vs incidents

If you're a casual observer of workplace safety literature, the terms "accident" and "incident" can seem interchangeable.

You may have also noticed that occupational safety and health professionals use the terms differently than you might in day-to-day conversation.

If you're a little deeper in the weeds of workplace health and safety, you'll see that the difference between an accident and an incident can vary from organization to organization.

How do you make sense of these terms?

The Difference Between Accident and Incident in Workplace Safety

In occupational safety and health (OSH), an incident is always a safety or health event with unwanted consequences.

An accident is a type of incident. Accidents have a narrower definition. What, exactly, separates an accident from an incident depends a little on who you ask, but an accident typically implies a much more serious outcome.

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How is This Different from Incident vs Accident in Everyday English?

In day-to-day speech, the word "accident" implies a number of things. Accidents are:

  • Unintended, unexpected, or unplanned
  • Always negative
  • As trivial as breaking a cheap belonging, or as tragic as a fatal car crash
  • "Nobody's fault" (unforeseeable or unpreventable)

The first two definitions match the usage of "accident" in safety and health usage, while the last two definitely do not.

In occupational safety, an accident is always serious. And it's the job of a safety and health professional to foresee a potential accident and find ways to prevent it.

Naturally, a small percentage of workplace accidents may be genuinely "unforeseeable" (because they're so incredibly unlikely) or "unpreventable" (because we're missing critical information), but the point of the OSH industry is to foresee and prevent as much as possible.

The word "incident" is also used very differently in conversational English than in safety parlance.

In a safety context, an incident is always unwanted and unplanned.

In daily speech, it's simply a single occurrence of…something. It's a fairly neutral word (though it can be negative in context). In day-to-day usage, an "incident" could be planned or unplanned, expected or unexpected, and there isn't much baggage over whether it's good or bad.

These differences between this plain language and the professional definitions are why OSHA follows a very different "accident vs incident" policy than anyone else in the industry.

Why OSHA Uses Incident, Not Accident

One of OSHA's primary mandates is to educate the workforce on safety and health in plain language. They do sometimes use vocational jargon (masonry terms, for example), but they stick to language that workers will know.

"Accident" has such heavy baggage in normal conversation that they avoid it altogether. OSHA doesn't want people to think of safety and health incidents as "nobody's fault" or risk implying that an event isn't serious.

Using the word "incident" regardless of severity helps them avoid calling up these unwanted associations when discussing unintended safety and health events with workers.

There's another reason OSHA prefers "incident."

When people get hurt at work, it's an emotionally charged situation. No one wants the blame, but OSHA wants a productive discussion to prevent the same thing from happening again. A term like incident is an emotional blank slate.

A neutral term can lower the emotional temperature of a conversation. It helps us step back and think about how an event occurred objectively.

OSHA's probably onto something when they avoid using "accident," but they're the exception. OSH professionals can and do use their own definitions of accident and incident to categorize events.

What's the Most Common Distinction Between Accidents vs Incidents?

In safety parlance, it's most common for the word "accident" to describe an incident that results in serious consequences that the organization wants to avoid. The word "incident" is then applied to unwanted events that fall short of being an accident.

In workplace safety circles, the serious consequences that rise to the level of "accident" are focused on serious illness or injury. By this definition, an incident would involve other unwanted consequences like minor injury or illness, property damage, a "near miss" with a serious health outcome, or a loss of productivity.

But occupational safety and health is just one category of a larger industry known as Environment, Health & Safety (EHS), which also includes areas like environmental and community health and safety. Since the goals of those other disciplines are different, so are the definitions of "accident." For example, in environmental health and safety, an accident might be characterized by a certain level of water, air, or soil contamination.

Organizations that need to control consequences in more than one area may define an accident's "serious consequences" by a mix of these disciplines. Organizations may also consider certain serious economic consequences to be accidents as well, such as massive property damage or loss of productivity.

The important thing is to have clear goals for the types of incidents you want to eliminate, craft the definition of "accident" using those goals, and be consistent.

What Makes an Occupational Safety Incident "Serious" Enough to Be An Accident?

Even if you're using the most common workplace safety definition of accident and incident, you might have a different threshold between the two than another organization. In other words, what makes an injury or illness "serious" enough to be an accident?  

Many use the OSHA's reporting and recording policies as their guideline.

OSHA requires organizations to report the most serious safety and health outcomes to them directly within 24 hours. These reports automatically trigger a site visit and investigation, which is obviously something companies want to avoid if possible.

Reportable incidents include:

  • Death
  • In-patient hospitalization
  • Amputation
  • Loss of an eye

Additionally, OSHA requires certain outcomes to be recorded in a log that will be reviewed during an inspection, investigation, or audit.

Recordable incidents include:

  • Any reportable incident, plus injuries or illnesses that require
  • Days away from work, restricted work, or transfer to another job
  • Medical treatment beyond first aid
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Another diagnosis of significant injury or illness by a licensed health care professional

Organizations don't have to report incident details to a centralized database, but they do have to report their total count each year. Organizations with higher totals can also expect a site visit from OSHA, so companies try to keep recordable incidents down.

This tends to be the minimum for defining an accident in workplace safety. Local jurisdictions or organizations themselves may choose even more cautious definitions.

Why Does Incident vs Accident Matter?

Having clear definitions for an accident, incident, and near-miss can be a critical first step toward improving your organization's safety and health record.

For example, the category helps dictate how quickly a response is necessary. An accident should trigger a timely investigation. Incidents and near-misses should factor into the priorities for a periodic job hazard analysis.

The goal of each process is to pinpoint the cause of the incident and determine whether you need new or modified safety protocols, but the urgency is different.

Sometimes changing a safety protocol isn't the issue – sometimes it's getting workers to comply. You should always investigate why workers aren't following a protocol and find a way to address that. But sometimes the only "why" is a lack of understanding. That's where OSHA training comes in.

As an OSHA-authorized online training provider, we have a large catalog of courses on common safety topics. Workers will learn the how and why of OSHA regulations in a self-paced format. All that's left, after that, is any workplace-specific policies or details to help them comply. It's an efficient and cost-effective way to train your workforce.

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