June 9, 2016 | Barb Carr

Root Cause Tip: Was it an Accident, an Incident, or an Event?

Root Cause Tip: Was it an Accident, an Incident, or an Event?

Many years ago when Mark Paradies was in the Navy, he was writing an application to become an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois. Mark’s boss was reviewing what he wrote and they got into a long discussion over whether a problem they had was an event or an incident. A couple of years later, while Mark Paradies was doing his Master’s Degree research, he got into a very similar discussion over whether a significant problem at a nuclear plant was an accident or an incident.

Fast forward to 2019. I was teaching a TapRooT® training course in New Orleans and four of my students got into the same discussion over whether the significant problem they were investigating was an accident or an incident.

Was it an Accident, an Incident, or an Event? Let’s dig deeper!

Well, let’s look at the dictionary definitions… (from the Merriam-Webster on-line Dictionary)


  1. an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance
  2. lack of intention or necessity :  chance <met by accident rather than by design>
  3. an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance
  4. an unexpected and medically important bodily event especially when injurious <a cerebrovascular accident>
  5. an unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but for which legal relief may be sought
  6. used euphemistically to refer to an involuntary act or instance of urination or defecation
  7. a nonessential property or quality of an entity or circumstance <the accident of nationality>


  1. something dependent on or subordinate to something else of greater or principal importance
  2. an occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience :  happening
  3. an accompanying minor occurrence or condition :  concomitant
  4. an action likely to lead to grave consequences especially in diplomatic matters <a serious border incident>


  1. outcome:  the final outcome or determination of a legal action:
  2. a postulated outcome, condition, or eventuality <in the event that I am not there, call the house>
  3. something that happens:  occurrence
  4. a noteworthy happening:  a social occasion or activity
  5. an adverse or damaging medical occurrence <a heart attack or other cardiac event>
  6. any of the contests in a program of sports
  7. the fundamental entity of observed physical reality represented by a point designated by three coordinates of place and one of time in the space-time continuum postulated by the theory of relativity
  8. a subset of the possible outcomes of an experiment

How to make this simple …

In safety terminology, an EVENT is something that happens.

An INCIDENT is a minor accident.

An ACCIDENT is something that has serious human consequences (injury or fatality).

Thus we probably talk about:

  • lost time accidents
  • near-miss incidents
  • events that led to a near-miss

In the TapRooT® System, an Event is an action step in the sequence of events on the SnapCharT®. The Incident is the worst thing that happened in the SnapCharT® sequence of events. Thus, and Incident is a special kind of Event. Plus, if the SnapCharT® is describing a serious injury, the Incident describes the Accident. Thus an Event could be an Incident that describes an Accident!


Do you define these terms at your facility?If so, please add your definitions as a comment here.

Was it an Accident, an Incident, or an Event?


Root Cause Analysis
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