I have seen considerable resistance, even from safety professionals, when it comes to trying to instill an “all accidents are preventable” culture. In spite of the resistance, I believe: 1) all accidents are preventable, indeed; and 2) it is the only right culture to instill in a professional organization. Any other culture invites compromise and equivocation. When we think about any other critical rule we have in place, we set forth the expectation of 100-percent compliance; safety should be no different—all accidents are preventable.

Arguments for “Accidents will happen”

I do realize there are some compelling arguments against this philosophy which must be considered. Here are five examples:

  • Argument #1 - How can an accident be preventable if it is unforeseeable?
  • Argument #2 - How can you prevent an accident if it was caused by nothing more than a random equipment failure or PPE failure?
  • Argument #3 - How can you prevent an accident that was precipitated by an act of nature?
  • Argument #4 - How can you prevent an accident that was due to an act of sabotage or terrorism?
  • Argument #5 - How can you remove the law of chance which dictates that sooner or later, every imperfect person will have a careless moment or be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Don’t forsake foresight

While these arguments may sound compelling, it may be hasty to accept them at face value.  With the first argument, for instance, it does not hold up when you consider that even a lack of foresight can be prevented. Would the foresight not be improved by greater experience, better training, a more effective job safety analysis, manufacturer’s data or historical records of similar incidences? And foresight is greatly improved when workers are taught, not to only do a JSA at the beginning of the job, but to continuously risk assess their every move during the job.

Root cause is not random

With the second argument, even what appears to be a random failure can be traced back to a root cause that drives you back to how it could have been prevented. Could the failure not be prevented by better design, better operational practices, better maintenance or better monitoring?

Acts of nature are not accidents

With the third argument, an act of nature should not fall into the category of accidents, but into the category referred to by lawyers as “Acts of God.” In other words, while these are not preventable, neither are they accidents. Having said that, many “Acts of God” do follow a pattern, such as the weather, and many can be detected beforehand such as earthquakes and volcanoes, giving us the ability to prevent even many “Acts of God” mishaps. 

Don’t confuse safety with security

With the fourth argument, sabotage and terrorism are not accidents, but injuries or near misses that were intentional and planned. Those are not safety issues, but rather security issues.

Reduce the odds

The fifth argument is perhaps my favorite. I think we sometimes treat “chance” as an entity that is capable of exerting force or influence. If we are referring to mathematical probability, this is a different story and serves only to prove our point that it is possible to prevent all accidents.

How so?

First because we can always reduce the odds against us with every improvement we make to design, monitoring, maintenance, training, PPE, operational procedures and so on. Second, when we reduce the odds against us, we raise the probability in our favor. What is the mathematical chance that we can prevent all accidents? No matter how slim the odds, if there is one chance in a million, then it is possible that every accident can be prevented. Keep in mind that every accident being preventable does not mean it could have been prevented by the victim. Sometimes, the accident could have been prevented by the manufacturer or the reliability group or the maintenance group or the supervisor of the victim.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

The adage “you get what you expect” is true. Cultures with high freedom (to participate in creative solutions) and high expectation (accountable for big outcomes) are still the corporate cultures that produce the best results.

Will we ever see an accident-free global workplace? Probably not, but the closest we will come is through instilling an “all accidents are preventable” culture. I have known many people who have worked their entire career without a single work-related accident. What is the mathematical chance that everybody could do that? We should keep in mind that the world is filled with examples of things that used to be thought of as undoable. I believe it was Elbert Hubbart who said, “…the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”