Are All “Accidents” Preventable?

Red dice

Let’s examine that question carefully starting with the definition of the word, “accident.”  There are many ways to define it, but a common one from includes, “an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss…”  Other terms used include “fortune, luck, or chance.”  Sentences defining accident might include the words, “I was there by accident.”  

This is why using the word “accident” is less than ideal when describing workplace injuries.  Everyone’s definition is going to vary, but ultimately a lot of people accept that accidents simply involve bad luck or chance, that it was just “one of those things.”  With this mindset it becomes pretty easy to dismiss accidents as fate or luck and not really address the root causes.  That can only lead to acceptance and a disregard for what really causes injuries. 

When I was a safety officer in the Navy, the mishap investigation procedures and documentation were very clear.  Even using the word “accident” was prohibited.  At no time should the investigator imply that the event, usually an aircraft crash, was even partially due to luck or chance.  Oh no, there were causal factors and our job was to determine what caused the mishap.  It was not an accident, but it was a predictable outcome given the circumstances. 

With all of this in mind, I’d ask you to examine your workplace culture.  Are people quick to dismiss injuries as accidents?  Or do they understand that every incident is preventable?  If we stand on this principle we are much more likely to prevent injuries.  In other words, if we accept that there are causes for all injuries then we also accept that there are ways to prevent all injuries. 

So now let’s reword the opening question.  “Are all injuries preventable?”  This becomes a much more meaningful question and if you’re in the safety business, one that should very well be answered with a resounding “yes!”

When I ask this question of a group I usually get some resistance.  So my next question to the dissenters is, “tell me about an injury that was not preventable.”  There is always a moment of silence, then people think of those “freak accidents” and tell me about injuries that could happen usually involving a wild animal, meteor, or lightning.  I will usually nod my head and agree that one of those things could happen.  If I’m struck down by a meteor tomorrow then it was probably an unpreventable injury.  But frankly, meteors, and other unpreventable incidents are extremely rare.  They do happen, but the vast majority of injuries, in the workplace and elsewhere, are completely preventable.  That is the mindset that people have to embrace.  If I think that I will probably fall on the ice someday I’m much more likely to actually fall on the ice because I’ve accepted it as inevitable.  But if I am determined that it will not happen to me, that it is completely preventable, then I’m much more likely to practice safe behaviors and use good hazard awareness.  This lowers the likelihood of an injury! 

This discussion is all about safety culture.  If everyone at your organization is determined to prevent workplace injuries and they believe they are 100% preventable, the odds are much better that injuries will not occur.  Yes, we all make mistakes.  We shouldn’t look for blame, but for causes.  Take care of yourself and your coworkers by providing safe workplaces, following best practices, using the right PPE, and enforcing the rules consistently.  After all, there are no accidents!      

For more help, check out our resource for injury prevention - The Safety Director.

By Randy Klatt