Are Accidents Unacceptable?

Is this a simple yes/no question or do the answers depend on the circumstances, the people involved, whose question it is or which audience we ask?  Many forms of media express an ‘unacceptable’ verdict after an incident or accident.  Many a politician or industry expert will condemn an incident as unacceptable and demand not to leave a stone unturned during an investigation. And, it seems, the more disastrous an outcome, the more unacceptable the event has become. However, is such response or outcry of ‘not accepting the consequences’ meaningful after something unexpected has just happened? Because, that is exactly what an accident is, an unforeseen outcome of a situation, event, … something that unexpectedly and unintendedly turned out a wrong way.

Accidents often cause loss. Loss in any form, of life, property, reputation, harm to people and/or the environment; things often cherished, so carefully built or developed now destroyed, damaged or permanently altered. Shock, outrage and devastation are natural responses, especially from victims, directly or indirectly involved.

Safety is about protection from harm and reducing the chance of unwanted outcomes happening (again). This way we try to look after victims and especially try to prevent such devastation to happen to anyone ever again. However, is in this situation the ‘unacceptable’ verdict, especially at a time that we have not even understood what happened meaningful? It does, namely, indicate something that is ‘not allowable’ has happened, in other words, that someone, somewhere failed.

Whether an accident occurs or not, depends on many different factors, which we may or may not have (full) control over. Managing our daily lives, our work places and activities, means managing many different aspects and variables in order to come through the day without harm, or having caused any. It is a myth to believe that we have control over all these variables all the time: in today’s complex and departmentalised world, there are not many situations ‘in control’ by one person at all times. Our control is shared, across people, teams, organisations and even international borders.

For an ‘unacceptable’ situation we need two elements: control and foreseeing the outcome. An accident, by definition, lacks both: it was unforeseen and out of control. An accident is not planned to happen, any harm was unintended and unforeseen. In any other case, we do not speak of an accident! Moreover, the term ‘unacceptable’ implies control and ability to foresee the outcome on someone’s part. It is this implication that seriously stands in the way of learning about what has happened, as the verdict on failure has already been casted, the only thing that now rests is finding out who had the assumed control… and the rest is pretty straightforward.

The question of acceptability is somewhat relevant however, but should be focused on issues that are actually under our control. Restraints in budgets, manpower, political will and access to resources pose increasingly complex dilemma’s dealt with at ‘operators’ level in many organisations. At the same time, our strive for increasingly being ‘faster, cheaper and better’ leave our otherwise rather successful people perform with having increasingly less control. Is this acceptable in a time where safety is supposed to be one of our top priorities?

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