Institutional support of learning from accidents: some obstacles to getting a useful community-wide database in the EU

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Learning from other people’s accidents and misfortune is not a novel accident prevention strategy. The benefits of such learning are obvious. What is not so obvious, however, is how to provide institutional support and how to set up systems that facilitate such learning. We examine the European Union’s Major Accident Reporting System (MARS), which is created in conjunction with the EU regulatory instruments to prevent major industrial accidents, the Seveso-directive. We review some of the general requirements that a successful reporting system must meet and suggest that MARS may not live up to the noble intentions behind its creation. Our case example is a simple methanol tank storage installation which we believe can be found in most if not all EU member states. We demonstrate that the data in some of the Short Reports in MARS have a number of serious shortcomings. Causes are not identified and lessons learned are left blank. We argue that there are substantial opportunities foregone in the EU system that provides institutional support to learning from past experience. Over the course of 22 years the EU database has only accumulated about 600 Short Reports for all its member states. We consider it unlikely that this number represents all “major accidents” according to a common sense definition of this concept for such a large territory. We speculate if legal scope limitations may be counter productive and perhaps even self-defeating for the Seveso legislation’s stated objective of accident prevention through information sharing. We compare MARS with a commercially available accident database. While the two reporting systems suffer from the same fundamental shortcomings the commercial system is marginally superior to MARS. We conclude by emphasising that the value of accident reporting schemes is not only determined by the quality of the data they contain but that institutional support appears to be crucial to sheer survivability.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2006
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Event15th annual conference of the Society of Risk Analysis - Ljubljana, Slovenia
Duration: 11 Sept 200613 Sept 2006


Conference15th annual conference of the Society of Risk Analysis


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