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An accident is defined as an unintended and unplanned occurrence that results in a negative effect(s). It implies a negative outcome that could have been avoided had the root cause been recognized and acted upon. Accident causation theories have been developed in an attempt to predict accidents and thus prevent their occurrence. So far there has not been an accident prevention theory that has been universally accepted. They have however served in some precautionary measures in some cases.
Popular accident causation theories include the Domino theory of accident causation, Accident/Incident theory of accident causation, the Human Factor theory of accident causation, Behavioral theory of accident causation, the combination theory of accident causation, the Epidemiological theory among others. Work-related accidents cost companies a lot of money in terms of lost wages, insurance costs, medical expenses, compensation expenses among others. In order to prevent accidents, the cause of accidents has to be established which explains the development of accident causation theories.
The Domino theory of accident causation
The Domino theory is among the popular accident causation theories and some of the more widely accepted theories can be traced back to this theory. This theory was developed by one Herbert W. Heinrich in the late 1920s. He conducted a research on industrial accidents and concluded that 88% of accidents are caused by unsafe acts committed by people, 10% by unsafe conditions and 2% he claimed were unavoidable and termed them as acts of God. He came up with ten axioms of industrial safety that health and safety decision makers needed to understand in coming up with decisions to predict and prevent accidents.
In summary these axioms explained that injury results from a series of events one of which is the accident itself. An accident can only result from an unsafe act committed by someone and/or a physical hazard. He claimed that most accidents result from people’s unsafe behavior but unsafe behavior/conditions do not always immediately result in an accident. Therefore finding the reasons why people committed unsafe acts can guide in selecting corrective actions. The severity of an accident according to Herbert is by chance rather than design and the accident that caused it is preventable. He concluded that management ought to take responsibility for safety with the supervisor being the key person in the prevention of industrial accidents seeing as there were indirect losses incurred besides direct ones.
Heinrich proposed a sequence consisting five factors that followed sequentially, that is one factor resulted in the next. The first factor was ancestry and social environment. This factor explains that negative traits that may cause people to commit unsafe actions may be inherited or acquired from the environment one was socialized in. The second factor is fault of person and it implies that people act in unsafe manners due to the negative character traits they acquired. Unsafe acts or physical hazards are the third factor, and they directly result to accidents the fourth factor. Accidents then result in the fifth factor, injury.
An example of the domino theory of accident causation would be injury caused by workers failure to use protective gear. This could be due to genuine reasons such as discomfort when it gets too hot. The management could prevent a lot of accidents by dealing directly with the cause of such an unsafe act, and then act directly on the unsafe acts. For example they could implement heat reduction measures or provide more comfortable protective gear. Afterwards they could require that everyone be in protective gear as long as they are working as a general rule.
The domino theory has been criticized as more of a portrayal of how accidents happen rather than what causes them. It suggests that an event automatically leads to the next and breaking this chain of events would prevent the accident from occurring, but it does not explain why these events take place.
The Human Factors Theory of Accident Causation
This theory consists of three factors that lead to human error which causes accidents. These factors are overload, inappropriate response and inappropriate activities. An overload is an imbalance between a person’s capacity and the load that person is carrying at a given time. A load in this case consists of burdens resulting from situational factors, internal factors or environmental factors so that a person has to bear them besides their usual tasks and responsibilities. Overload causes strain and overworking which in turn impairs one’s ability to think and act rationally when faced with a hazard.
This theory claims that the way a person responds in such a situation can prevent or cause an accident. If a person detects a hazard and does not correct it then they have responded inappropriately and this response could cause an accident. Inappropriate response could also be a decision on the part of the victim to err in an attempt to deal with the overload. For example they may forego equipment safety regulations in order to get more work done in a shorter while.
An example would be increased demand for production without proportionate increase in manpower. This happens when a company is growing and the demand for its product is increasing. If management does not increase manpower to cater for increased production, this situation may put strain on current employees causing sloppiness, overworking and irritability. Accidents are more likely to occur in such a situation.
The adjustment stress theory is a result of factors in the human factor theory. This theory states that any negative stress or pressure imposed on an individual internally for example fatigue, or externally for example noise, will increase the likelihood of accidents. Stress can cause unsafe behavior as it temporarily impairs one’s judgment and one may deliberately choose to err, ignore a hazard or fail to detect an oncoming hazard.
An inappropriate activity on the other hand involves undertaking a task knowing you lack prior appropriate training or underestimating the risk involved. The distraction theory can be a result of an overload or inappropriate activity. This theory states that the workers suffer accidents when they are distracted either by jobsite hazards, stress or pressure. Pressure especially may cause a worker to ignore a hazard in order to meet a deadline. Stress and mental worries may distract workers from detecting a hazard in time to avoid them. Inappropriate activities sometimes are caused by overconfident risk takers who misjudge the degree of risk involved.
Accident/Incident theory of Accident causation
This theorywasdeveloped by Dan Peterson and is an extension of the human factor theory. It claims that unsafe behavior is a result of overload, ergonomic traps or a decision to err. Pressures such as deadlines and peer pressure can cause one to make a decision to err. For example an employee who is vulnerable to peer pressure may conform to pressure to work faster and therefore increase his likelihood of being involved in an accident.
Peterson’s theory also establishes management’s role in accident prevention. Ways in which management can fail include failing to take necessary safety procedures and failing to define responsibility regarding safety. Another role of management is ensuring employees receive safety training and comply with safety procedures such as inspection, correction and in more practical cases protective gear. The company is responsible for ensuring a clean and healthy environment to avoid environmental factors that can lead to impaired health. The epidemiological theory of accident causation was developed as a direct result of the relationship between disease and environmental factors. This relationship is known as epidemiology and can be used to study the relationship between environmental factors and accidents.
This theory unlike the Domino theory explains the reasons that cause workers to engage in unsafe acts, or what causes the events that eventually lead to accidents.
Accident Proneness theory
This theory as the name suggests implies that some people have inherent character traits that increase their probability of being involved in accidents. That is if accidents were randomly distributed among persons working in similar conditions some would be more likely than others to suffer injury as victims of accidents. These people usually are risk takers and on average take more chances than their colleagues. Health and safety decision makers view this issue positively arguing that behavior can be altered. This theory in comparison with therest is more specific on the cause of unsafe behavior and therefore prediction and prevention more likely to be achieved. This theory relates mostly to construction sites.
Combination theory of accident causation
Accident causes cannot be adequately explained by one model. Most of these models give important insights but none of them wholly applies to every accident occurrence. Thus, the combination theory suggests that the real cause of an accident may be a combination of different parts of these models. An accident may be caused by a combination of a worker’s decision to overlook a potential hazard, performance of an unsafe act and inappropriate response to an overload.
Multiple Causation theory
This view implies that an accident may be caused by a combination of multiple contributory factors. These factors may be behavioral or environmental. Behavioral factors are factors pertaining to the worker’s individuality such as their attitude, skill, intellect and physical/mental condition. Environmental factors on the other hand involve factors affecting the working environment such as machinery, precautionary and safety measures taken in the work place and existence of hazardous conditions. It uses concepts that are almost similar to those in the behavioral and epidemiological theory. Environmental factors whether involving hygiene or physical working conditions unlike behavioral factors may cause accidents and injury whose cause is was beyond the victim’s control. Such causal factors can be predicted and prevented more easily than those involving behavior and unsafe acts.
Comparison of the Accident Causation Theories
The above accident causation theories among others agree on a couple of things. One is that accidents have a cause that can be predicted and prevented. In most of them an accident is a result of sequential effects where one action leads to another indefinitely. In all cases there is err in one or more of the actions prior to an accident that could have been avoided but often was overlooked or ignored especially due to misjudgment of the degree of risk involved. The difference in these theories is brought about by differences in perception of accident phenomenon. Were we to present these scholars with a single case study where we required them to observe the same accident and draw conclusions, the difference in each one’s perceptions would result in different assumptions and theories.
Each perception however falls under any one of the following theories.
The Single Event Theory
This theory is based on the perception that every accident has a cause and the solution is as simple as finding the cause and eliminating it. This theory often relieves the victim of blame and is notorious for blaming it on factors beyond the victim’s control such as fate, acts of God or ill luck. This theory though strongly disputed by scholars, can be observed almost always when accidents are reported. There is often an “It was nobody’s fault” attitude which discourages further examination into the accident phenomenon in an attempt to prevent a reoccurrence of the same. The single event theory does apply to some accidents such as natural catastrophes but rarely does it apply to work related accidents.
The Chain of Events Theory
The most popular adaptation of this policy is the Domino theory. According to such theories it is assumed that an accident is a result of a set of events, often sequential, that are symptoms and sort of warning signs. This theory implies that the cause of an accident is a result of various factors that need to be detected as hazards before they all materialize. This theory is a bit more accurate than the first but does not adequately explain accident causes.It explains the events that lead to an accident but does not necessarily explain the determinants or causes of such events. It implies a situation where one can break the chain of events and prevent an accident rather than doing away with the chain of events.
The determinant variable theory
According to this theory the variables that influence factors in the probability of an accident occurrence are closely examined. The assumption here is that there are common factors in every accident that are used to draw conclusions and establish the accident cause. These factors are influenced by variables that can be varied to bring them about, reduce, increase or prevent them.
The branched events chain theory
This method was used in the 1960s by US military to predict and prevent accidents. They created a ‘fault tree’ or pyramid where an accident flowed through a sequential chain of events from a variety of origins. This was an efficient mode of prediction that allowed them to analyze actions and their results in the fault tree before they occurred hence be careful with those that could lead to accidents.
The process theory
This view suggests that an accident is a result of interruption of homeostatic activity that results in unintended injury or harm.
Accident Causation Model
The accident causation model divides errors or failures into active and latent failures. Active failures are failures whose adverse effects are immediate. These failures correspond with construction where a failure leads to instant injury. They are often sudden and often the victim does not see it coming. Their cause could be unsafe acts performed by a person or a hazardous environment. Latent failures on the other hand correspond to adverse consequences that lie dormant for a period only to surface later when triggered. Such consequences were always there but their effect is delayed. They correspond to administrative and management activities and even though the effect cannot be lessened its blow can be softened or compensated in advance.
Accidents arepart of life and are generally perceived as a result of carelessness or neglect. They always have adverse effects that may be fatal. Accidents especially caused by ignorance and reluctance to take safety precautions are unnecessary and can be avoided. Accident causation theories have come in handy especially in the work place and in public places where measures to prevent accidents have saved lives and saved people from injury. It is human to err and quite impossible to go through life having it all figured out and making no mistakes. However it is possible to greatly reduce accidents by creating awareness to reduce ignorance and penalizing unnecessary causes of accidents.