Human error is a pervasive and normal part of everyday life and is of interest to the anaesthetist because errors may lead to accidents. Definitions of, and the relationships between, errors, incidents and accidents are provided as the basis to this introduction to the psychology of human error in the context of the work of the anaesthetist. Examples are drawn from the Australian Incident Monitoring Study (AIMS). An argument is put forward for the use of contemporaneous incident reporting (eliciting relevant contextual information as well as details of use to cognitive psychologists), rather than the use of accident investigation after the event (with the inherent problems of scant information, altered perception and outcome bias). A classification of errors is provided. "Active" errors may be classified into knowledge-based, rule-based, skill-based and technical errors. Different strategies are required for the prevention of each type and it may now be useful to place more emphasis in anaesthetic practice on categories to which little attention has been directed in the past. "Latent" errors make an enormous contribution to problems in anaesthesia and several categories are discussed (e.g. environment, physiological state, equipment, work practices, personnel training, social and cultural factors). An approach is provided for the prevention and management of errors, incidents and accidents which allows clinical problems to be categorized, the relative importance of various contributing factors to be established, and appropriate preventative strategies to be devised and implemented on the basis of priorities determined from the AIMS data. Accidents cannot be abolished; however, an understanding of the factors underlying them can lead to the rational direction of resources and effort to prevent them and minimise their effects.