Redefining Safety Terms: Accidents, Incidents and Non-Conformances

When it comes to workplace safety, the distinction between terms like ‘accidents’, ‘incidents’, and ‘non-conformances’ is more than mere semantics – it shapes how organizations approach, analyze, and ultimately prevent workplace hazards.

This blog delves into these terms, unraveling their meanings and implications within a safety-focused culture, particularly in industries where the margin for error is slim and the consequences of misunderstandings can be severe.

The Misinterpretation of ‘Accident’

Traditionally, the term ‘accident’ has been used to describe events leading to injury, death, or property damage. The National Safety Council (NSC) defines an accident as “the occurrence in a sequence of events that produces unintended injury, death, or property damage.” This definition emphasizes the event rather than its outcome. However, the safety community has largely moved away from using the term ‘accident’ in favor of ‘incident’. The rationale behind this is that ‘accident’ often implies an unavoidable event, which might discourage thorough investigation and analysis.

Embracing ‘Incident’ Over ‘Accident’

The term ‘incident’, as used in safety circles, aligns more closely with the notion of ‘unintentional deaths and injuries’. This perspective inherently recognizes the preventability of such events. By identifying and understanding the root causes of incidents, safety professionals can implement measures to prevent their recurrence.

The Concept of Non-Conformance

A deeper dive into safety management reveals the importance of understanding ‘non-conformance’. Defined simply as a ‘failure to conform’, non-conformance, according to international standards like those of the International Standards Organization (ISO), is “the failure to meet one or more of the existing requirements.” When an organization deviates from regulatory or procedural norms, it must address and rectify these deviations as a part of its commitment to safety.

Transitioning to a Culture of Safety

Transitioning from a mindset fixated on ‘accidents’ to one that focuses on ‘incidents’ and ‘non-conformances’ is pivotal. This shift involves moving away from the belief that accidents are unpreventable, towards recognizing that incidents and non-conformances can be mitigated through systematic processes. Cultivating this cultural shift within an organization can take years, but its impact on workplace safety is profound.

Applicability in Construction

For those in the construction industry skeptical about the applicability of these concepts, consider this: successful construction operations already utilize systems for efficiency, timeliness, and budget adherence. Incorporating a systematic approach to safety is a natural extension of these existing practices. By adopting and adapting these safety management principles, construction entities can not only enhance safety but also potentially exceed current industry norms.


The terminology we use in safety management is not just semantic; it shapes our approach to preventing and responding to workplace hazards. By understanding and implementing a systematic approach to incidents and non-conformances, organizations can create a safer, more efficient, and proactive working environment. This shift is not just about compliance but about fostering a culture where safety is ingrained in every aspect of the operation.

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