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There’s the famous (but true) trope of a child asking an adult “Why?” repeatedly, even after they’re given an answer.

“Tie your shoes.”


“Because otherwise you’ll trip.”


“Because when shoelaces are left untied and hanging around your sneakers, you might step on them and then trip.”


“Because humans aren’t that coordinated, and we’re bound to the laws of physics and gravity.”


“Because we can only do as much as our physical bodies will allow.”


“Because we haven’t yet reached the point in evolution where our consciousnesses don’t need to exist within a physical space.”

This kind of interaction can seem annoying, because the adult gives the child what they thought were matter-of-fact answers, but the child isn’t satisfied and keeps pressing. Think for a second about what annoys you more—the continuation of a conversation you thought was over, or the need to think more deeply to answer each “why” (and take more time), when you thought that the answer you gave was enough.

The Answers Lie Under The Whys

When it comes to understanding, assessing and managing risks, you need to take the time to find the real “why.” When an incident or accident occurs, you need to understand what truly caused it, and then determine what you’re going to do about it.

One of the post-incident root cause analysis processes, the 5 Whys are a simple and effective way to determine the true cause behind an incident, the root of the problems that arose. That being said, “simple” does not mean “quick and easy”— like with other risk assessment methods, such as LOPA and HAZOP, you only get as much out of it as you put into it.

In order for the 5 Whys to be valuable to your operations and help keep your people safer, it needs time and attention to detail. With every “why,” the answer gets both deeper and more specific. It’s not just about tying shoelaces so that we don’t fall, it’s about understanding that we have a risk of falling after a misstep because we’re affected by gravity.

Applying this to a workplace accident, imagine that an employee is walking down a path in a warehouse, and they don’t notice the small puddle of water in front of them from a leaking pipe directly above. They keep walking, they slip, they fall, they get hurt, then they’re off work for a week recovering.

Applying the 5 Whys Method

(1) Why did the employee slip?

The pipe was leaking.

(2) Why was the pipe leaking?

The warehouse’s water pipes were not well-maintained.

(3) Why were the pipes left in poor condition?

Consistent evaluations were not completed to check the state of the pipes.

(4) Why were routine evaluations on warehouse conditions not completed?

Maintenance was busy with other tasks that seemed like higher priorities.

(5) Why wasn’t maintenance able to complete all these tasks?

The maintenance team is severely short-staffed.

Hello, Root Cause.

After asking “why?” five times, we’ve gone deep enough to arrive at a specific system-level failure. We’ve realized that the employee ultimately fell because the maintenance team is so short-staffed that they couldn’t complete routine maintenance to keep the warehouse in good, safe condition. Think about it from a site manager’s perspective— realizing that the maintenance staff is so small that they can’t maintain a warehouse safely points out the possibility of other hazards that no one had noticed or been hurt by yet.

From childhood curiosity to workplace accidents, you can apply this analysis method to any situation and find a solid answer. As long as you’re willing to take each step and examine the true contributors to an accident, you can determine your true root cause and what you can do to rectify it.

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