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When is an Accident Not an Accident?

Having delivered many training courses in many countries, I have frequently tried to address the issue of accidents and near misses. Two recent items on the BBC News website have made me wonder to what degree there is still no common understanding.

The two incidents (accidents?) occurred at Boston’s Logan Airport and worryingly involved two of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The first was a fire which broke out as a result of a battery fault and led to smoke in the cockpit after passengers had disembarked whilst the second involved a spillage of 150L (40 gallons) of fuel as a plane was preparing to depart. Whilst the first incident was subject to an investigation, the US National Transportation Safety Board, according to BBC News, did not investigate the second as “it was not an accident”. They did not give the definition of an accident which they use or their criteria for whether to investigate. However, I think that most health and safety professionals would ask the question, whether in the case of a near miss, there was the potential for a serious injury and if there was, would investigate as if the injury had occurred.

When we were studying for our professional qualifications most of us will have considered the Heinrich Triangle and the ratios of severities. Although recently there has been criticism of the Heinrich approach, the accepted frequency of near misses gives us a major opportunity to identify potential injury causes before any harm occurs. As a result organisations with a real commitment to managing employee health and safety try to obtain data about as many of these incidents as possible and apply the concept of injury potential as a criterion for selecting the level of investigation.

In the case of aviation safety the public perception is that an incident is always potentially serious and I am sure that they would expect a thorough investigation, particularly in the case of a new airliner which is due to enter service with many of the world’s leading airlines. Failure to investigate and to be transparent about the results and actions, can seriously affect confidence in the airliner and the reputation of the airline using it. In fact is has just been reported that yesterday there was a further incident with a 787 when brake problems resulted in cancellation of a flight.

From a passenger and public safety perspective I would hope that these would be investigated and from a business point of view we need to consider risk communication. A spokesperson for one airline that has ordered the plane, commented that “It’s a new plane, and some minor glitches do happen. It’s not a cause of concern.” (Reuters). True perhaps, but hardly reassuring.

Barry Holt, IIRSM Director of Policy & Research

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