The Difference Between an Incident and an Accident in the Workplace

Nebosh By Andy Taylor

The terms ‘accident’ and ‘incident’ often get confused in general speak. However, when it comes to health and safety in the workplace, they are two very separate things. In fact, they are two words which are defining in explaining what happened in an occurrence.

Never has two words been confused so greatly but with so much important to what they mean.

The basic definitions of ’incident’ and ‘accident’ in the workplace are:

  • An incident is something that has happened in the workplace unexpectedly, which hasn’t caused any personal injury, but may or may not have caused damage, and that warrants reporting.
    This could be something like a spill or something falling, which has not injured a person, but may (or may not) have done some damage to property.
  • An accident is something unexpected that has happened in the workplace which has caused personal injury, death or ill-health of an employee or member of the public, or damage to property.
    This could be anything from somebody slipping or tripping over to something falling on their head, burning themselves or part of a building collapsing.

These are two very different situations and should be dealt with in different ways.

Workplace Incidents

A workplace incident can be categorised into:

  • A near miss – which is an internal incident, which should be recorded and investigated by the workplace
  • A dangerous occurrence – which must be reported under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) in fewer than 10 days. This is when an incident occurs that potentially could have caused serious injury, incapacity or death.

There is a famous health and safety saying that states that “an incident is an accident waiting to happen”. And this is why all incidents must be reported an investigated, to make sure that the occurrence doesn’t happen again, or that it doesn’t get worse.

To be able to ensure that an incident is properly investigated and reported, it is recommended that a workplace has someone who understands the health and safety laws, as well as someone who is responsible for investigating the incident. The NEBOSH Introduction to Incident Investigation course is a good course which will give you the skills and knowledge to enable you to properly investigate an incident and reduce the chance of it happening again.

By reporting and investigating an incident, you can not only take out measures which will help to reduce the risk of it happening again, but it can also focus other employee’s minds onto the potential for it turning into an accident.

In the words of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “An investigation is not an end in itself, but the first step in preventing future adverse events”.

Workplace Accidents

When there is an accident in the workplace, there is a legal requirement to report it to an employer (usually via an accident book) an ensure that they are aware of it.

The RIDDOR guidelines stipulate that employers or other people who are in control of a workspace must report:

  • Work-related accidents which cause serious injuries or death
  • Any diagnosed cases of industrial diseases
  • Incidents or dangerous occurrence which have the possibility of causing harm

This allows local authorities to investigate if need be to check that no-one was negligible and ensure that the proper processes are put in place to ensure that nothing happens again.

Most companies prefer to have someone who is responsible for overseeing the health and safety of the business. For many businesses, it is best to get somebody who is qualified in health and safety, knows exactly what the requirements are for an employer and has their finger on the pulse in terms of law changes.

They should also be able to properly investigate incidents and be able to produce reports and plans which are essential to keeping all of the employees safe in their particular working environment.

One of the most important jobs of the person responsible for health and safety is ensuring that all employees are abiding by codes of practice and regulations, but also spotting potential health and safety risks, as well as overseeing the reporting of incidents and putting ideas into place to reduce the risk of accidents.

The difference between an ‘incident’ and an ‘accident’ is an important difference to distinguish. It is also important that any occurrence is dealt with in the appropriate way, so being able to define these two words is very useful. When it comes to workplace health and safety the most important this is to ensure that potential risks are eliminated as far as possible.

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