Myth busting: Are All Accidents Preventable?

accident-preventionRecently, my friend Alan Quilley wrote a fine article in this very blog dealing with Safety Myths.  I thought that it would be a good idea to expand upon this by exploring some myths further. I will start with a very prevalent one that has found its way into many safety policy programs and even several textbooks:

All Accidents Are Preventable. 

The question, of course, is: Are all accidents in fact preventable?  If so, why don’t we see this happening in our everyday observations?  Just check the news or your company’s incident statistics.  Why are we still seeing accidents after almost a century of more or less serious safety management efforts, scientific and technical progresses, and increased societal demands through better standards and regulations? Do we truly know all the ways we can achieve 100% accident prevention?

If we presume that accident prevention is possible across the board, are we not trying hard enough after all?  Or is this (as more cynical folk might think) just a phrase that is used to justify so-called “Zero Harm” goals?  The latter thought isn’t so absurd, by the way, because “zero” is only achievable if indeed all accidents can be prevented.

Many may argue that some things simply cannot be prevented. Safety professionals have thought long and hard about this. It’s probably one reason why “Acts of God” are usually not considered “accidents.” Furthermore, most “safety definitions” of accidents describe them as “unintended” events, thus excluding terrorism, sabotage, and other intentional acts, sending these events into the realm of security. 

After some thought, I have come to the conclusion that the often-heard mantra, “All Accidents Are Preventable”, is only true if we add a couple of words.  Let’s discuss some good candidates:

All Accidents Are Preventable In Theory

What “theory” that is, I’m actually quite unsure about.  But some safety academics seem to think it so.  By the way, the denominator “academics” here is meant as “safety professionals living in ivory towers with little or no relation to reality,” not the ordinary dictionary meaning “people involved in higher education or research of safety.”

Actually, the term “theory” is not defined as “a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking”. Nor is it “generalized explanations of how nature works”.  Rather, we use “theory” here as an antonym of “practice”, and one might even see it as a synonym of “dream”, “vision”, or even “delusion”.

All Accidents Are Preventable In Hindsight

In real life at the sharp end, decisions are usually made under difficult circumstances, with a degree of uncertainty, limited knowledge, and time pressure.  For the most part, we manage very well, but sometimes the outcome of our decision is not quite what we expected or hoped for.  We did our best, but things went otherwise because we did the wrong thing given circumstances.  As a result, an accident happens.

These difficulties and limitations are significantly missing after the fact.  We suddenly have full overview of the circumstances in hindsight.  There is plenty of time to reflect, contemplate, and gather additional information (preferably to prevent another similar accident). And best of all: the outcome of the decision we made is now known, relieving us of all uncertainty!

We have blind spots in real life, and so do organizations. In hindsight we seemingly don’t suffer from this because at least now we see the things that went wrong and what we should have seen before.

All Accidents Are Preventable Given Unlimited Knowledge, Resources, Perfect Prediction, and Luck

This is the best of the contextual candidates.  If we didn’t have those annoying limitations discussed before; if we just knew everything with perfect certainty and precision, including the results of our actions and decisions;  if we had unlimited resources to remove all hazards... then no accident would happen. Ever.

But, how realistic is that scenario?  People have limitations on resources (time, money, etc.) yet must face exactly the same problem.So where does that leave us?

Let’s just face it, we cannot prevent everything. We don’t even want to prevent absolutely everything – some workplace accidents we can just live with (the proverbial finger cuts when filling paper into the printer being just one example).  This is clearly one reason that in many safety and OHS legislations the “reasonably” criterion is found. 

Mind you, this is not an argument out of fatalism! We cannot prevent everything, but that doesn’t take away the responsibility for us to try as hard as we can within reasonable boundaries. 

Allow me to quote Professor James Reason from the conclusion of his fine 2008 book The Human Contribution:

“Safety is a guerrilla war that you will probably lose (since entropy gets us all in the end), but you can still do the best you can.”

Let’s take these wise words to heart and get on with it.  Maybe we cannot prevent all accidents, but we can prevent a substantial amount if we decide to work systematically and structurally.  Hopefully we’ll succeed in preventing the most important ones. Good luck!

 

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Carsten Busch

Written by Carsten Busch

Carsten Busch has studied Mechanical Engineering and after that Safety. He also spent some time at Law School. He has over 20 years of HSEQ experience from various railway and oil & gas related companies in The Netherlands, United Kingdom and Norway. These days he works as Senior Advisor Safety and Quality for Jernbaneverket’s infrastructure division and is owner/founder of www.mindtherisk.com.

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