A modified critical-incident analysis technique was used in a retrospective examination of the characteristics of human error and equipment failure in anesthetic practice. The objective was to uncover patterns of frequently occurring incidents that are in need of careful prospective investigation. Forty-seven interviews were conducted with staff and resident anesthesiologists at one urban teaching institution, and descriptions of 359 preventable incidents were obtained. Twenty-three categories of details from these descriptions were subjected to computer-aided analysis for trends and patterns. Most of the preventable incidents involved human error (82 per cent), with breathingcircuit disconnections, inadvertent changes in gas flow, and drugsyringe errors being frequent problems. Overt equipment failures constituted only 14 per cent of the total number of preventable incidents, but equipment design was indictable in many categories of human error, as were inadequate experience and insufficient familiarity with equipment or with the specific surgical procedure. Other factors frequently associated with incidents were inadequate communication among personnel, haste or lack of precaution, and distraction. Results from multi-hospital studies based on the methodology developed could be used for more objective determination of priorities and planning of specific investments for decreasing the risk associated with anesthesia.