TABLE OF CONTENTS Oct 2000 - 2 comments

Are all accidents preventable?

TEXT SIZE bigger text smaller text

The Editor:

In the July/August, 2000, issue of OHS Canada you asked six health and safety professionals "Are all accidents preventable?" I believe that as long as humans are involved in any activity there will be mistakes made and mistakes lead inevitably, and at times regrettably, to accidents. When the standard is that no mistakes will be made and no accidents are to happen, it implies that someone is performing at a less than acceptable level when mistakes are made and accidents happen. My experience is that people do the best they can and have no intention of making mistakes and causing accidents. A safe worker is one who recognizes his or her mistakes and potential mistakes and either effectively recovers from them or avoids them before the consequences become disastrous.

We as organizations and individuals should conduct our activities to recognize our mistakes and develop strategies to mitigate their consequences. Accident defences and recovery strategies take the form of risk identification and assessment, personal protective equipment, standard procedures, employee training and supervision and a management supported environment in which workers can do their jobs safely.





We can't prevent all accidents

The Editor:

I believe the answer to the question "Can all accidents be prevented?" is yes. We undertake all of the necessary due diligence issues, training, observation, ergonomics, task analysis, inspection, etc., to hopefully avoid having accidents. The question then becomes "Can we prevent all accidents?" The answer to that question is no. As Mr. Gilmore says, it is not reasonable to expect people to be perfect and without error. Somewhere, sometime, something is going to fail whether it be people or equipment. How we prepare for this failure goes a long way in determining the eventual severity of the accident.

I believe Mr. Bennett takes a narrow view of the whole issue, which is not surprising considering his background. Of course, engineering safety and eliminating the hazard rather than lessening the impact should be the first priority in any organization. However, once again, we are dealing with these "imperfect" mechanisms called human beings. Safety must start first with those ultimately responsible. That is, each and every person should honestly believe that their own safety rests first with themselves.





Not a minority

The Editor:

Thanks for the article on incident preventability in the July/August issue. Provocative, and very useful responses from our colleagues. Incident causation and the business case for workplace safety are -- in my humble opinion -- the two largest unresolved issues in our whacky discipline. The absence of sound data in each case is damaging our professional development and, in fact, our acceptance on executive radar screens everywhere. Nice to see some dialogue on one of them. Now, if we could only stimulate some meaningful research.

The article quotes Peter Strahlendorf as saying "A minority of people in any organization believe that accidents are either pre-destined..." I've had the privilege of practising from Whitehorse to Moncton, and have found a clear majority in every industry believe that "stuff happens" (to paraphrase the popular expression). There is an appalling lack of understanding of incident causal factor relationships, and the old "dumb worker" and "stupid management" paradigms are very much alive and well everywhere I've been. Yes, there are some enlightened exceptions, but they are exceptions. Further, I don't see this changing very quickly unless/until we're able to present a meaningful business case for changing the paradigm. The business environment is getting crazier, and we're falling further and further behind in creating an apologetic for our discipline.



Landing near the stars

The Editor:

The opinions of the six experts remind me of the old story about the four blind men describing an elephant. A true picture is not perceived until all the descriptions are put together to complete the picture. Are all accidents preventable? Yes. There are technology and methods available to do this (i.e., you could live in a concrete bunker). Is it practical to do this? No. In our everyday lives we must take risks to function. Risk comes from many different sources -- environment, equipment, people, materials, timing, knowledge and so on. Where there is risk, there will eventually be an accident. Therefore the focus, using many tools and methods described by the six experts, should be to eliminate unacceptable risks, evaluate other known risks for outcome and act accordingly, and continually search for the unknown risks that may lead to an accident. The mission for safety professionals is to be accident-free, which I started out by stating is impractical; however, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you still end up among the stars....




Larger photo & full caption

File size: 9.9 KB (252px X 251px)

Horizontal ruler

Reader Comments

Most recent firstOldest first

Hugh Harrison

Are ALL accidents preventable?
Some situations are outside the realm of experience, do not respond as all similar experiences have. Let's say, 99 out of 100 plants that look, smell and taste like lettuce are edible. Then one day you run into the exception.

Of course, there are unforeseen eventualities. An underground river erodes the subsoil and an unsuspecting hiker falls in. You drive along an endless highway that you rightfully assume is like all the others, then suddenly make contact with an unexpected protrusion at the top of a hill.

So, ALL accidents are NOT preventable. Not even in an ideal universe where everyone has highly tuned powers of prescience. The unexpected, the unforeseen will always manifest themselves in s changing universe of experience. We learn certain things and then they change and new experiences unfold.

It is unfair to hold men to this utopian standard. Companies and government agencies need to reassess the concept that we live in a perfect world.

Humans are not born with the super ability to know all things in advance, to maintain 100% focus on ALL things around them 100% of the time. Humans have selected focus and a lot of automated responses (based in experience) otherwise our neural systems would be overwhelmed and nothing would get accomplished if we had to pay close attention to every minor detail and ponder every possible outcome. In every situation, there are an infinite number of potential outcomes. No one has the time or ability to prepare for every one of those possibilities.

Think. You're walking along the street at night. Experience tells you that most of the time, maintaining a relative level if awareness while you walk and observe and think will see you home safely. All about you are other pedestrians following the same basic human rules.

Suddenly one of them steps on an IUD, another is crushed by a falling branch, one is hit by a meteorite, another disappears into a sinkhole. And on and on. Limitless possibilities for something completely unexpected to happen.

You greet your neighbour of 15 years who suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots you, your dog attacks you having been affected by a diseased squirrel, a snake not indigenous to your region springs from the grass and sinks its fangs into your ankle. You're stung by a bee and for the first time in your life go into anaphylactic shock. Were you always allergic? Not necessarily. Things change. And because they do, we encounter situations we can't predict, don't have the experience to anticipate and prevent and because we are simply not aware of the potential for such situations, can't respond in time to avoid mishap.

We live in an unpredictable universe where the best we can do is lessen the odds of something happening but not totally control it. But then if we were so omniscient, life would be pretty dull. There would be nothing new to experience and learn.

The conclusion.

Many accidents are preventable but not all. The idea that all accidents are preventable lies outside the realm of human awareness, human prescience, human knowledge and experience. Perhaps only in the realm of an all-knowing, all-seeing god can such a world exist.

Until we become gods then, we live in a unfolding universe that defies our ability to predict all outcomes, all eventualities.

Posted October 6, 2013 12:39 PM


Yes and No,

First I thing we need to look at the term Accident" as an undesired and unplanned event that results in harm to a person, property, or the environment. According to this definition, a tornado destroying a house is an accident, can I prevent the accident from happening, no. But can I prevent the accident from happening to me, Yes, I can implement measures so that the event won’t impact me. Preventable accidents = Zero Injuries = unlimited resources. In theory, every accident is preventable, but it would take unlimited resources to accomplish this, and would most likely involving engineering out the human workforce, but if we had unlimited resources, we could do this. We could have robots that do all the work for us. But I still do think that a organization needs to set the “Zero Injuries” as their goal, otherwise you are accepting that workers are going to get hurt that year. Some organizations have gone 3 months, 6 months, or even a year with no accidents. The number is either wrong and there is a reporting problem, or it is right and you have been lucky but it is inevitable that an incident will occur.

Posted May 18, 2012 06:25 PM

Horizontal Ruler

Post A Comment

Note: By submitting your comments you acknowledge that OHS Canada has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that due to the volume of e-mails we receive, not all comments will be published and those that are published will not be edited. However, all will be carefully read, considered and appreciated.

Your Name (this will appear with your post) *

Email Address (will not be published) *

Comments *

* mandatory fields