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Occupational Safety and HygieneInternational Symposium on

When the Unexpected Attacks Oliveira, Maria Joãoa, Campos e Cunha, Ritab a PhD Student on Management - Nova School of Business and Economics - Faculdade de Economia - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Campus de Campolide, 1099-032 Lisboa, email: mariajoliveira@sapo.pt; b Associate Professor - Nova School of Business and Economics – Faculdade de Economia - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Campus de Campolide, 1099-032 Lisboa, e-mail: rcunha@novasbe.pt

1. INTRODUCTION When the unexpected decides to attack, it does so in a quick, sudden, surprising way, but giving us alarm signals that for some reason humans tend to ignore, or even when acknowledging them, considering them as alarm signals that may affect other potential victims but not themselves. It is part of human nature to think that bad things only will happen to our neighbor but not to ourselves, that is why man still compete with nature and stays in danger areas to face hurricanes, take off protective part of work engines and say “is for working better”; refuses to follow legal rules and keep saying that: “it does not make sense”. ‘Man just do not get it’ that is he one of his first enemies when we are talking about unexpected events. Things do not happen meanless, they happen because a order of factors had come together in that particular time and cause the unexpected event. Following this perspective and considering the radical sports or activities, we may conjecture that for some people it is exciting to look for the unexpected, and that is the reason for so many people face risks knowing that is dangerous what they are doing.

On the other hand we have the victims of events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, explosions for whom such events were tremendous, frightening and traumatic, with possible effects throughout their entire lives (e.g., post traumatic stress, depressions, physical disabilities). It depends on several factors that exist simultaneously in each unexpected event, for instance the kind of event, the type of personality of the victim, the injuries suffered, the help received at the moment, and afterwards, etc. Additionally, we may consider as unexpected event, events as different as the terrorist attack to the Ministry building and the blood massacre in the Utoeya Island in Norwegian, the current International Financial Crisis or the Libyan War, the 9/11 attack, or the Russian plain crash that killed almost an entire sports team.

So, what does ‘unexpected event’ mean? The concept of ‘unexpected event’ is broad and may be analyzed from different scientific perspectives. Financial crises can be studied by financial and economic science, natural disasters can be approached by different perspectives (e.g., sociology, anthropology, geography, natural and physical sciences, and health sciences) (Alexander, 1991). In the safety context, the factors contributing for the unexpected events are studied by the lens of sciences like engineering (e.g., Jacinto & Aspinwall, 2004), organizational behavior (e.g., MacPhail & Edmondson, 2011, Muñiz, Peón & Ordás, 2005) or management (e.g., Cooper, 2001).

Albeit the multidisciplinary characteristic, consensus does exist between different scientific approaches in studying similar factors: i.e., causes, consequences, phases, similar events or specific events (e.g., Barings Bank).

In different literature streams, from different scientific fields, these questions were not systematically addressed, but there is consensus that events as different as environmental or natural disaster, human calamity, financial crises or industrial disasters are all considered as unexpected events. So, in this sense the ‘unexpected event’ is a broad concept. In fact the main discussion and disagreement only begun when the analyses consider the concepts of ‘calamity’ and ‘disaster’, or being more specific in defining what kind of unexpected event we are talking about, especially their consequences.

This paper is focused on the diversity of unexpected events that can occur, and aims to establish the similarities and differences between them, in a systematic way.

The data are being collected and analyzed; further information will be discussed in the future considering the results obtained. The preliminary results and conclusions will be presented.


Studies about unexpected events spread in different scientific publications and may refer to natural, environmental, or industrial disasters. They include work accidents, industrial disasters, tsunamis, famine, financial crises, and environmental jolts as a strike, fire, or simply the price of Brent. In this diversity, even being unexpected, it is essential to define what really means ‘unexpected event’, and in what context we can consider an event as unexpected. They all are unexpected, because even when knowing that they will eventually happen sometime, we cannot predict exactly the timing, what would be their severity and their real consequences. Even being capable of predicting that a volcano could explode its lava at any time, we do not know the intensity of the smoke, the size of the ashes, the kilometres that the lava would run, the intensity of the poisoning gas entering the atmosphere until it actually happened. The alarm signals will always be present, and identifiable, but we do not know when it will happen, and how.

When an unexpected event occurs, a crisis may begin and it must be managed; in this perspective a crisis is considered as “...an unexpected, unlikely, yet high-impact event that may cause significant change in human knowledge and performance at the individual, group, organizational, and community levels.” (Hutchins, 2008, pp. 302).

We consider that these events have great impact in human and organizational lives, and an important contribution for human development and organizational knowledge that cannot be ignored. It is in that perspective that this work intends to progress.

Following this definition, we can have many different kinds of unexpected events in the work safety context, such as work incidents, near misses, work accidents (i.e., individual accidents) and also industrial disasters (i.e., organizational accidents). In the natural disaster context we may find events so different as floods, famine (also considered as human disaster), tsunamis, earthquakes, or landslides. In the environmental context we may talk about pollution in the ocean, rivers, air, land, nuclear disasters, draught, or even plagues.

All these events are similar in that all of them are unexpected but all of them differ in kind (i.e., natural, industrial, environmental, financial) and in the analysis approach; hence the focus of study in terms of crisis in general is also similar (i.e., causes, consequences, phases).

Alexander, (2005) gives some contribution in establishing the status of disaster literature and he points out as a gap the lack of a definition of disaster, which hampers researchers to establish exactly what is and what is not a disaster. The author considers that defining disaster should consider some main points as area, magnitude or other criteria that could be followed to facilitate the process of identification of a disaster. Alexander (2005) gives the example that it is possible to have a landslide of large dimensions without deaths (e.g., Alaska, 1964) and a small landslide with deaths (e.g., Aberfan Landslide, 1966). By that the author intends to raise the question that we can have unexpected events with minor dimensions but great consequences, even disastrous, and we can have major unexpected events with minor or even no consequences at all. So, it is crucial to define what is a ‘disaster’, a ‘calamity’ and also an ‘unexpected event’. Alexander indicates that contrary to what has been done regarding hazard, risk and disaster “...little attention has been devoted to disaster as mindset, fixity of opinions or states of mind created by events” (Alexander, 2005, p.28).

If a crisis is something unexpected, unlikely, yet high-impact, it has severe repercussions to people and organizations yet we may propose that it could never be predicted. But that it is not true. In fact even being unexpected, such events provide alarm signals through time warning us that at any time a crisis or an unexpected event could happen. Before a severe earthquake, there are always minor earthquakes that can occur for months or weeks, before the major earthquake, before the tsunami there is always an empty sea, before a work accident there is always several work incidents and near misses. So, there are warning signals, but sometimes people ignore them or tend to dismiss them. In the work safety context it is well known that work accidents happen after several work incidents and near misses have occurred, giving information that should have raised the attention of organizational actors that an accident was eminent (see Miguel, 2010, and references to the seminal work of Heinrich). Unfortunately that information is often ignored, banned, less regarded or simply forgotten resulting in severe work accidents and even in industrial disasters.


Some organizations, however, differ by being capable of managing quite well the chaos of the situation and at the end achieve positive results. Those organizations are attentive to alarm signals and information, they act preventively and always before the event strikes; those organizations are called HROs (i.e., High Reliability Organizations). HROs are defined by Roberts (Bourrier, 2005), as organizations “...in which errors can have catastrophic outcomes, but which conduct relatively error free operations over a long period of time, making consistently good decisions, resulting in high quality and reliability operations” (Bourrier, 2005, p. 94). HROs are attentive to minor events and to all the associated information to learn to prevent future similar events and to avoid major unexpected events with greater consequences.

They develop a mindful infrastructure (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007) based in five principles, which are: 1) preoccupation with failure; 2) reluctance to simplify; 3) sensitivity to operations; 4) commitment to resilience and 5) deference to expertise. Those principles can be developed by any kind of organization and in different levels (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 1999). These characteristics should also apply to a broad number of ‘support services’, such as firefighters, emergency rescue services, hospitals, civil protection services, etc.

This work aims to study how those organizations learn with unexpected events and how they define it as such.


This study will be developed using article databases as information and documentation sources for our research. In the first moment the articles in the databases of the authors are being introduced in a SPSS databases, then new articles would be searchable in articles databases as for instance: ESBCO, B-ON, etc. The search for articles would follow some criterions; first authors would identify in the literature some key-words that they would use to search for articles (e.g., crisis management, work accidents, disasters, environmental jolts, etc). All the collectable articles would be analyzed and introduced in the SPSS databases created for this purposed by the authors.

The databases was created in SPSS aiming to allow the classification of events in type of risk (i.e., risk perspective or hazard perspective), in type of unexpected event (e.g., natural, industrial, work accident, work incident), environmental jolts (e.g., strike), crisis management (e.g., environmental, financial), type of disaster (e.g., landslide, explosion, flood) and also other variables such as area of knowledge, science of approach, type of study, location, population, and economic sector. All the collectable articles could be classified regarding each one of the variables existing in the

–  –  –

databases. In the end, authors would look for similarities and differences and would look especially for what kind of unexpected events are more retractable by the literature and in what field of knowledge.


Until now the results indicate consensus in how different types of events are classified in the broad category of ‘unexpected events’, as well as in the definition of ‘unexpected event’ that follows.

Whenever the analysis becomes thinner, different points of view appear, for instance in attributing the classification of ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ or even ‘accident’ Another interesting finding is that, notwithstanding the scientific approach used, these are a common perspective in terms of identifications of phases, causes and consequences of unexpected events.

Nevertheless more data are still being collected and analyzed and deeper conclusions are necessary.


This research project is financially supported by a FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, Grant, reference:


7. REFERENCES Alexander, D. (1991). Natural disasters: a framework for research and teaching. Disasters, 15(3), 209-226.

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