In common language, we tend to use “incident” and “accident” interchangeably, with the latter having a more negative connotation. However, in the world of occupational safety, each word has a precise meaning. To complicate matters, there are various definitions for how “incident” and “accident” are used in the workplace.
Whether you’re a site supervisor or safety manager, it’s crucial to understand the difference between accidents and incidents. The exact nature of an onsite event determines the legal and practical outcomes, as well as which procedures come into play.
“Accident” vs. “Incident”
In occupational health and safety, the words “incident” and “accident” both refer to an unexpected, unintentional event. Unlike in general language, “incident” carries a negative connotation. When used for worksite events, it usually And while conversational English often uses “accident” to mean anything unintentional, a workplace “accident” always refers to a serious, harmful event.
Of course, each company has its own specific definitions and standards for what constitutes an accident vs. an incident. Usually, though, an “accident” includes a serious injury or illness, while an “incident” consists of property damage, an unexpected hazard, or a minor injury.
Let’s dive into the key aspects of a worksite accident and how it’s defined and documented.
What Constitutes a Worksite Accident?
As mentioned above, an “accident” in health and safety lingo entails a serious injury. But how is this defined? According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a serious injury is one that results in any of the following:
- In-patient hospitalization
- Medical treatment behind first aid
- Loss of a body part
- Loss of consciousness
- A diagnosed injury or illness that can be traced to the onsite event
- An injury or illness severe enough to warrant time away from work or a limitation on job performance
Needless to say, any event that results in someone’s death is marked as an accident. And while that worst-case scenario is unintentional, most safety professionals consider it preventable. That’s why robust safety plans are crucial to mitigating any hazards that could lead to an accident.
What Constitutes a Worksite Incident?
Any unintended negative worksite event that falls short of a serious injury is an incident. This may involve any sort of damage, hazard, or minor injury that threatens the productivity and success of the project. While incidents don’t entail serious injury, they may make one more likely. Therefore, it’s just as important to prevent “incidents” as it is “accidents.”
Most companies define an incident as any harmful worksite occurrence that results in:
- Damage to property or equipment
- Spills of dangerous or polluting chemicals
- Harmful environmental impact
- Disruption of work (or the ability to work safely)
- Any damage, hazard, or disruption that impedes progress or productivity
- Minor injuries such as those requiring general first aid or a short amount of downtime (e.g. minor scrapes, cuts, bruises, as well as heat exhaustion or burnout)
Note that these are all negative outcomes that fall short of being “severe.” One way to look at it is that all accidents are incidents, but not all incidents are accidents. An event that’s a “near miss” of being an accident (such as falling tools that almost strike someone) is the most serious type of incident.
All that said, OSHA avoids the word “accident” because its general-language meaning has associations with “unpreventable” and “non-serious.” They use “incident” to describe any negative worksite event. While that may seem confusing, it’s by design: OSHA wants safety planners to focus on prevention, and the best way to do that is to discourage unexpected, harmful events onsite by any means necessary.
Defining Accident vs. Incident for Your Company and Worksite(s)
As the meanings of “accident” and “incident” clearly vary widely, and OSHA casts a broad net for all negative worksite events, it’s ultimately up to each site supervisor and safety planner to create a practical definition. For example, an event that seriously disrupts one worksite may have little effect on another.
Consistency is key. The last thing you want is to have such ambiguous standards for “accident” or “incident” that you’re not sure which papers to file or procedures to follow when an event occurs. It’s easier to identify a serious injury, but ideally, you never want to reach that point! That’s why setting clear guidelines for what constitutes an incident and how to respond is crucial to preventing severe accidents.
Indeed, many safety experts recommend defining an accident as anything you want to prevent completely. Debilitating injuries or death are always on that list. Anything that could lead to serious injuries or collateral damage (e.g. loss of consciousness) typically falls under this umbrella as well.
To separate accidents from incidents, consider the severity of an event’s impact and various outcomes. Equipment malfunction that temporarily delays work is less severe than one that presents a risk of bodily injury. By developing your safety plan to mitigate unintended events and negative consequences, you can help prevent more severe outcomes.
Define everything clearly and ensure that everyone on your team knows which events constitute an accident vs. an incident — and how to respond.
Assessing and Tracing Worksite Incidents and Accidents
Without clear guidelines and protocols, you may end up with a situation where what seemed minor resulted in serious outcomes. That’s never good, as it makes it more difficult to handle any consequent workers’ compensation claims, worker downtime, and other unintended expenses. Consider, too, that any incident has fallout, from decreased morale and productivity to potential fines and cleanup costs.
By defining incidents and accidents, you lay the framework for determining how they happened. It’s not a matter of blame or random misfortunate (which is why OSHA dislikes the word “accident”). Your safety plans and protocols help prevent negative events. If they do happen, you must figure out where something went awry. Often, an “incident” precedes an “accident,” such as an improperly managed machine or task that eventually becomes a serious safety hazard.
Communication is vital to incident prevention. If workers don’t know the proper method, or if they’re tempted to cut corners in the name of productivity, you’re more likely to have negative worksite events happen. Many hazards emerge because workers don’t realize the risks of not following protocols. When an incident happens, you’ll need to locate the breakdown or gap in your safety measures and procedures.
Also, all team members must know how to identify and respond to incidents. When should they disengage from malfunctioning equipment or a weather hazard? What should they do if a coworker gets cut, burned, or loses consciousness? When is it appropriate to call 911 versus simply breaking out the first aid kit?
Be sure that workers won’t avoid reporting negative events for fear of punishment or termination. When everyone prioritizes prevention with clear definitions of worksite incidents, it’s easy to mitigate risks and get buy-in from the team. In the long run, it takes less time to address incidents than to deal with accidents. Encourage all team members to alert site supervisors and safety managers to any hazards. It’s not “tattling” — it’s keeping everyone safe, happy, and productive.
In sum, every incident should be reported, recorded, and investigated, no matter how severe the outcome. This can help prevent accidents from taking place. The information you gather from each incident can also help you minimize workplace risks, both by improving response protocols and implementing/refining controls to keep negative events from happening in the first place.
What are the Legal Implications of Accidents vs. Incidents?
So far, we’ve covered all the theoretical and practical aspects of negative worksite events. In a nutshell, it comes down to each individual firm’s and worksite’s definitions. As long as those are clearly standardized and consistently communicated, the entire team can co-implement and co-enforce a safety plan, which can help minimize safety risks.
But how do these definitions align with legal procedures and workers’ rights?
In general, any worksite injury gives a worker the right to claim workers’ compensation — especially if they incur medical expenses and/or are forced to take time away from the job. This aligns with OSHA’s definition of “serious injury” described above: if someone needs more than basic first aid, they’re able to make a claim. That’s why it’s vital to prevent serious injuries, i.e. “accidents,” whenever possible.
Clear definitions for accidents and incidents can help you navigate the workers’ compensation process. Some unscrupulous site supervisors try to avoid providing documentation. As you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you care about your team’s safety and want to keep any workers’ comp claims above the board. A lack of safety protocols is your worst enemy in this situation, as it’s harder to accurately document the event. You could actually incur more fees and others costs if no one can determine what led to this serious injury. Play it safe and immediately implement your accident response protocols whenever a severe health issue (as defined by OSHA) occurs.
However you define “incident” and “accident,” they are both unexpected, undesirable events that you should strive to avoid. Don’t wait until something happens to figure out how to respond or what led to the event. Clear definitions facilitate strong protocols. Moreover, you and your entire team will be more inclined and better able to report and document any incidents or accidents. This ultimately keeps everyone safer. Remember, confusion and ignorance are the top factors in non-compliant or risky behavior!
For expert assistance in developing your safety plan and incident response procedures, reach out to Menotti Enterprise. Our multifaceted expertise in occupational health, risk mitigation, and safety training will help you prevent accidents and keep your entire team safer and happier.