Incidents vs Accidents in the Workplace: What's the Difference?

If you're just becoming acquainted with occupational safety and health jargon, you might be confused about the difference between an incident and an accident.

In context, they can sometimes seem interchangeable, especially when you're discussing serious safety-violating events. A little research can make the difference even more confusing because there isn't just one set of definitions.

If you're going to communicate effectively about workplace safety and health, you'll need to understand the ways that "accident" and "incident" can be used.

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What Is the Difference Between an Accident and an Incident?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

In nearly all situations, an accident is a type of incident – a subset. All accidents are incidents, but not all incidents are accidents. That's why the terms are interchangeable at times.

However, when it comes to the specific difference between "accident" and "incident," context is everything.

General Language Definitions

In conversational English, there's little chance of mixing these words up. An incident is simply an event or occurrence. We don't use it very often in casual conversation, so it doesn't come with a lot of emotional baggage. Sometimes it's used in a mildly negative way ("an international incident"), but it can also be neutral ("these were separate incidents").

Conversationally, the word "accident" is much more common, and that single word packs a lot of meaning. Accidents are unintended events with some degree of negative consequence. An accident can be as unimportant as breaking a plate, or it can be tragic and life-altering. The word "accident" also heavily implies that the event is no one's fault and that it couldn't be prevented.

Safety and Health Definitions

In the safety and health context, these words are very different. They're easier to confuse with one another because sometimes we use them interchangeably and because safety and health professionals have multiple sets of definitions.

Before we get into the different models, there are a few things that all safety and health usages have in common.

In the safety and health field, incidents and accidents are both unexpected, unintended, or unplanned (whereas, in casual English, "incident" doesn't necessarily imply intention either way).

Additionally, in safety parlance, the word "incident" is always negative. "Incident" implies unwanted consequences (or a near-miss with them).

Even though accidents and incidents are always negative, incidents are less severe than accidents. Unlike conversational usage, accidents are always serious.

Finally, to safety professionals, "accidents" aren't considered unpreventable. They can be more or less likely – more or less foreseeable with the information at hand – but the goal after an accident is always to prevent another occurrence.

Now, on to the three different models of accident/incident usage.

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Accidents vs Incidents, Defined By Personal Safety

In workplace safety and health, the difference between an accident and an incident is often whether it affects people's physical well-being.

What is an Accident?

In this context, an accident is an unexpected event that results in at least one serious injury or illness. It could have other negative outcomes, but the key to calling an incident an "accident" is a serious human safety or health result.

What counts as a "serious" injury or illness? It depends on your jurisdiction. Even then, organizations may have more strict guidelines for themselves.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers an injury or illness to be  serious enough for paperwork when it results in:

  • Death (reportable and recordable)
  • In-patient hospitalization (reportable and recordable)
  • Amputation (reportable and recordable)
  • Loss of an eye (reportable and recordable)
  • Days away from work, restricted work, or transfer to another job (recordable)
  • Medical treatment beyond first aid (recordable)
  • Loss of consciousness (recordable)
  • Another diagnosis of significant injury or illness by a licensed health care professional (recordable)

So in the U.S., that's a starting place for "serious."

What is an Incident?

In this model, an incident is an unexpected event that has negative consequences but stops short of serious injury or illness.

An incident may result in property damage, minor injury, a "near miss" with serious safety or health outcomes, or loss of productivity.

Accidents vs Incidents, Defined By Severity

When defining accident and incident, the previous model only considers severity in the context of injury and illness. Some organizations choose to differentiate the two based on the severity of any type of consequence.

This model is most useful for safety professionals whose concerns stretch beyond occupational safety and health.

For example, incidents that result in expensive property damage, serious environmental impacts, or significant loss of productivity could rise to the level of "accident," but serious injury or illness also qualifies.

Incidents vs Accidents, Defined By OSHA

To throw a wrench in the works, OSHA doesn't play by any of these rules.

Since part of their mandate is plain-language education for the workforce, OSHA feels that the colloquial meaning of "accident" makes it a poor safety term.

It makes sense. While safety and health professionals use their own definitions so often they become second nature, workers are more dialed in to the "nobody's fault" definition. Reprogramming someone's understanding of a common word isn't easy.

Rather than try, OSHA just doesn't use "accident" at all. Instead, they call everything an "incident."

"Incident" is a rarely used word, so it's a blank slate – with little effort, workers learn that an incident is unexpected, unwanted, and preventable. This sets the right expectations for workplace safety.

What's the Best Definition of Accident and Incident?

Each organization should define accidents and incidents in the way that is the most meaningful for them. The best usage will depend on your goals.

Ultimately, for these words to be useful for promoting a safer operation, you'd define an accident as any unintended event with an outcome you want to prevent completely. An incident would then be anything short of that.

The key is consistency. Pick a model and stick to it, get the definitions down in writing, and make sure that everyone understands your definitions so they use the words the same way.

Why Is Knowing the Difference Between an Accident and an Incident Important?

Safety accidents, by their nature, have serious consequences you want to avoid. They're expensive. Costs can come in the form of worker's compensation, medical care, time away from work, decreased productivity, depressed employee morale, legal costs, environmental cleanup, and a hit to your reputation.

Since incidents are less costly, they can be a valuable tool for preventing an accident. Incidents can help you discover safety hazards and prevent future accidents, as long as you're paying attention.

This is where incident investigations and tracking come in handy. Your efforts should focus on finding the root causes for each incident without blame. It's not helpful to conclude that someone was careless or that procedures weren't being followed. You should dig into why rules get violated or explore the engineering controls that would make compliance consistent.

Another key piece may be inadequate training. If workers don't understand the reason behind a policy or the potential hazards they face, they might take deadly shortcuts. That's the reason OSHA requires safety training.

As an OSHA-authorized online provider, we can help get you started in training your workforce for safety compliance. Check out our large library of OSHA courses in General Industry and Construction today

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