The AIMS-ICU project is a national study set up to develop, introduce and evaluate an anonymous voluntary incident reporting system for intensive care. ICU staff members reported events which could have reduced, or did reduce, the safety margin for the patient. Seven ICUs contributed 536 reports, which identified 610 incidents involving the airway (20%), procedures (23%), drugs (28%), patient environment (21%), and ICU management (9%). Incidents were detected most frequently by rechecking the patient or the equipment, or by prior experience. No ill effects or only minor ones were experienced by most patients (short-term 76%, long-term 92%) as a result of the incident. Multiple contributing factors were identified, 33% system-based and 66% human factor-based. Incident monitoring promises to be a useful technique for improving patient safety in the ICU, when sufficient data have been collected to allow analysis of sets of incidents in defined "clinical situations".