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Disregarding a risk does not equal an accident

“Reckless con­duct, which requires the conscious disregard of a known risk, is not an accident: It involves a deliberate decision to endanger another,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in the majority decision for Voisine v. United States last month. This statement was written in the context of a gun rights case, but it seems to us that it’s also relevant to another issue: laboratory safety.

As safety experts have told us and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) explained in a groundbreaking 2011 report, the numerous laboratory incidents involving injury or death that we have sadly had to report in recent years almost always arise not from random mishaps, as the use of “accident” implies, but from specific and often systemic failures to observe accepted safety practices. “[I]ncidents are not the result of a single malfunctioning piece of equipment or the erroneous actions of one person, but instead are the result of a number of failures and deficiencies at many levels within an organization and its technical community,” the CSB report states. In other words, they are no more random than is being thrown from a car in a crash if you’re not wearing a seat belt or, as Justice Kagan indicates, ignoring other known risks. 

Safety advocates interested in automobile fatalities also want to scrap the word “accident”—in their case, in favor of “crash.” Known risky behavior, such as drinking and distracted driving, accounts for “[a]lmost all crashes,” reporter Matt Richtel wrote in a May New York Times article, but “[w]hen you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’” said Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as quoted in the piece. “In our society,” he noted, “language can be everything.” Dozens of state transportation departments and various state and city governments have dropped the term “accident” from references to highway crashes, the article adds.

“Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word ‘accident’ conveys,” the Times article notes. Lab safety experts agree that making people aware that explosions, fires, poisonings, and other lab safety incidents happen because of risky decisions is an essential step in making those incidents far less common.

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