Critical incident reporting was introduced into the intensive care unit (ICU) as part of the development of a quality assurance programme within our department. Over a 3-year period 281 critical incidents were reported. Factors relating to causation, detection and prevention of critical incidents were sought. Detection of a critical incident in over 50% of cases resulted from direct observation of the patient while monitoring systems accounted for a further 27%. No physiological changes were observed in 54% of critical incidents. The most common incidents reported concerned airway management and invasive lines, tubes and drains. Human error was a factor in 55% of incidents while violations of standard practice contributed to 28%. Critical incident reporting was effective in revealing latent errors in our "system' and clarifying the role of human error in the generation of incidents. It has proven to be a useful technique to highlight problems previously undetected in our quality assurance programme. Improvements in quality of care following implementation of preventative strategies await further assessment.