Part 6 of this series of blogs about human factors and investigations in healthcare discusses the 'How' and the 'Why'.
How did the person die or was injured is different from understanding why it happened? At first this appears to be a pedantic, minor issue, but, as (hopefully) we shall see from this blog, it’s a vital distinction.
Question How did the plane crash?
Answer It was hit by a missile.
Question Why was a missile launched, is a vastly different question.
Question How was it that the pedestrian was hit by the car?
Answer It was due to the driver not seeing them – but why did they not see them is the question.
Without the why – you can’t do the intervention. Most investigations done stop at the how – few get to the why, especially in medicine, especially with root cause analysis.
Let's start with a summary of where we are in the blogs. I’m told our reader likes the summary (a Mrs Trellis of North Wales).
In part one we decided why we investigate an incident and what an incident was. In part two we decided that two investigators (or more) collect facts together in a more accurate way than one would. In part three we gazed into each other’s eyes and concluded that facts are our friends and where they might come from. We decided interviews and photos give us good facts. In part four we were introduced to what human factors is, and what it is all about and how western psychology is about exploiting the worker! In part five we thought that facts are time dependent and men of my age should not wear shorts outside a restaurant/come damaged aircraft. We discussed how dependent witness memories are on the elapsed time for the effective retrieval of information. These blogs, therefore, are asking simple investigation questions of Who, What, When and Why, and basic questions about what can humans do (human factors).
So here we are back to the powerful question ‘Why’ but this time, rather than "why investigate an event?", we are asking "why did this event happen?".
Most investigations stop at the point of understanding how the person was injured or died. The how they died does not give you enough data to prevent it occurring again. Knowing, for example, that an elderly, lone rail passenger unfamiliar with the station died from head injuries after falling on a platform with the investigation team concluding that ‘they lost their balance and fell backwards’ does not help understand why this happened or how to prevent its reoccurrence. Why did it occur that day, to that person, on that platform? Might an intervention based on the question ‘How’ be that no one over 60, who is unfamiliar with the station and travelling alone, be prohibited from travel. The important question is why and not how.
Likewise, a pedestrian is found dead by the side of the road after a collision with a van. How did they die? Well head trauma after collision with a van. How did that occur? The driver said that at night it was too dark to see the running pedestrian. Indeed, at the reconstruction it was very dark. But after 25 questions of ‘why’ came the critical ones. Why was a person out running in near total darkness without a light? Why could the van driver not see them? Why was there no light (torch etc) found with the pedestrian so they could run without falling into the numerous pot holes? Why that van and why that pedestrian.
The why (in this case) comes from human factors research into perceptual thresholds of how much light needs to hit the retina for the cognitive process to start. Long story, but the answer to why was a murder disguised as a traffic accident. Which takes us back to my first blog – what’s an accident – this was not a rare random event with multiple causes. It had one cause – top tip sleeping with a colleague’s partner is not a good idea. Unless you answer why, then there is no intervention and that ‘why’ is ‘why’ we do this.
Becoming a 5-year-old
The skill of an investigator in human factors is to keep asking the question Why (and perhaps not to insist an infographic is needed). Like my 5-year-old self. Why can’t I ride my bike to the next town… But why, but why. The police car brought me back last time – I was not lost. This may explain why a disproportionate number of my friends are clinical psychologists!
Two case studies. Let’s stick to rail. I can do why are anaesthetics rooms so small, but I’ll get all emotional! If I’m found dead in an alley it’s a hospital facilities manager wot did it.
A train station where there are 17 serious incidents on a single set of steps down to platform 1. It’s a traditional Victorian design urban station with access at street level and platforms below the booking hall. All platforms are connected by a glass overpass. No other platform (there are six) has an issue. One case is a fatality. How did they occur? The answer is – the person fell down the stairs. Head injuries and broken legs (not the same person!) are common.
The ‘how ‘is answered. The why is not. Why did they fall down the stairs we asked. “There are stairs and people will fall down them” came the reply. Why? “Well there are stairs and people will fall down them”. But why these stairs, why this platform, and why 17 people? Well, came the reply, we will have to put a poster up telling people ‘these are stairs.’ Why did they fall we asked? We have a poster telling people how not to fall down them and how to use stairs (hold the handrail) they replied. We asked as a five-year-old would – why do you think these people have problems with these stairs? So, let’s think of the why questions after some facts. Might be worth also predicting that posters are the sign of defeat and result from only asking ‘how’. Also, putting posters above stairs, so that people look at them and not the stairs, is another classic failure of understanding human performance.
Timetable information shows platform 1 is the city bound platform. Observations indicate that people descend the stairs very rapidly when there is a train present at the platform. Secondary observations come to understand that running starts at the ticket office overlooking the glass passageway over to the platform. Incident data reveals peak at rush hour above that of exposure (rise in passenger numbers). Only platform 1 can been seen from the walkway and the ticket office. The ‘why’ hypotheses was that as people became aware of the train arriving at the city bound platform, they made a run for it. We interviewed several of those injured. Most common statement from the predominantly local people was “I knew I would miss the train as I could see it at the platform, so I ran”.
The remedy was to put plastic obscuring film over the glass walkway so you could not see if a train was at the platform. No cognisance of a train’s presence = no rapid stair descents. Only journeys into the city appear to be highly time dependent.
After 11 years, no incidents on the stairs, no aggression to the ticket office staff (give me my ticket now!) and posters removed. Why – we asked ‘why’ not ‘how’. Removing ‘safety’ posters is always a good idea. I’m still trying to find out what an internal brand consultant is – they were against the removal of posters. Answers if you know what these are and how they make the world better please.
At a train station, there were 27 falls ‘down the steps’ of which four were citizens from the USA. These citizens of America are after the compensation for ‘foreseeable’ injury in the US courts. Think expensive when compared to compensation claims in the UK. As above, ‘the how’ was they were injured by a fall. Why at this station? Why these people?
Incident data revealed all those falling down the stairs were visitors to the area (based on address supplied). Plans of the Victorian station reveals it’s a small (four platform station) with over 80 different exit route combinations, via three underpasses. Exit here is time-critical – it’s near an airport with a connecting bus. There are over 130 signs containing over 900 words of advice. Observations and interviews showed that perhaps passengers lost spatial and situational awareness (more in later blogs) and became disoriented. CCTV images showed one passenger was walking up and down the platform twice, then walking through one of the underpasses six times, before they injured their arm when the bag got caught in the handrail and they ‘went down, way down, the steps’ ( from Incident report). Our initial hypothesis was that a lost and disoriented passenger with bags will find stairs more of a challenge than one who is not.
We removed most of the signs on the platforms and underpasses and replaced with one type of exit sign. Whether its exit to the airport or exit to the pub it’s still an exit. Locals – not represented at all in the data – know which of the combination of exits will get them to the pub.
No incidents in 12 years, and the platform staff last year took rail executives around ‘their’ station telling them how easy it was to prevent slips, trips and falls because “someone asked why”.
Why, and multiple causes
Early on in our blog life together we said that accidents have multiple causes. In healthcare we are not sure how many variables there are and even the extent of the problem. We also described that the cause is about the ‘environment’, the ‘human’, the ‘system of working’ or the ‘equipment’. We decided together this determines ‘who should investigate’. Engineering failings are done by engineers, for systems failures investigations by nursing staff are recommended. Well here the ‘Why' word repeated on the first day is the solution to find out who should investigate.
When do you know you have possibly stopped asking why too early?
The common reasons for stopping asking the question ‘why’ is when you get to one of the following conclusions:
1. Its human error.
2. It’s the person who had the incidents fault – but remember organisations fail not people.
If you get these conclusions, keep going and ask your friendly human factors person for help. Remember, one of the limits of investigations is that you can’t ask questions about things you don’t know about – obvious really, but that’s why there should be two of you and perhaps one of those is a human factors person. A major failing in root cause analysis is this fact is always overlooked.
3. I cannot ask ‘why’ anymore without getting asked to leave the building/the NHS/the human race… The solution is to ask questions using the Socratic method. More later when we think about logic – but the Greek philosophy types nailed it many centuries ago (just like they invented human factors in medicine; ergonomics they called it). Citing Professor Wiki once more and to appeal to the midwifes among you, the Socratic method is:
“a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It is named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates and is introduced by him in Plato's Theaetetus as midwifery (maieutic) because it is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding”.
Again, this is part of the human factors persons training and why we ask the questions in the way we do to members of the investigation team (sorry). There is a management consultancy (boo hiss) methodology called the ‘5 why method’, and its creeps into the root cause analysis nonsense (more boos). But just asking why without the Socratic teachings tends to just annoy people. Exploring ‘Why’ as an equal to the person you are talking to is more respectful and gets better data, and you should not get thumped.
Who asks why and to whom?
In later blogs we shall chat about interviewing witnesses. This blog is about the internal dialogue in the investigation team or, if there is just one of you, the internal monologue. Asking why to a witness is generally not the thing to do. Its common in healthcare but the witness cannot report Why, they only know the How. Witnesses provide facts, the team finds answers from those facts ('Where do facts come from?').
The ‘Why’ word is very powerful when added to a blank sheet of paper and a pen in the hand of the investigator and means that you focus on the outcome and not on a process. As replies to my earlier blogs – about how healthcare is all about process and not outcomes – well one word and some paper mean you can just focus on prevention. And dear reader why we investigate is to prevent it occurring – in the words of Metallica – 'Nothing else matters'.
The station (discussed above) where elderly people represent the dataset. All falling backwards on platform 1 and our initial (yours and mine dear reader) remedy was to exclude over 60s from it unless they were trained.
Suggestions of why and what questions would you ask. Comments below. (See Why investigate? Part 7 for the answer.)
Posted by MartinL
Top tip – no one was running and all very cognisant of the train times, and all but one sober. Happy if you want to test out the Socratic method now. Posters, as a solution, are not permitted.
Read the other blogs in this series
- Why investigate? Part 1
- Why investigate? Part 2: Where do facts come from (mummy)?
- Who should investigate? Part 3
- Human factors – the scientific study of man in her built environment. Part 4
- When to investigate? Part 5
- Why investigate? Part 7 – The questions and answers
- Why investigate? Part 9: Making wrong decisions when we think they are the right decisions
- Why investigate? Part 10: Fatigue – Enter the Sandman
- Why investigate? Part 11: We have a situation
- Why investigate? Part 12: Ethics in research
About the Author
Martin is a topic leader for the hub.
He founded the Human Factors group at the University of Sussex (1999), which became User Perspective Ltd in 2003. Martin, User Perspective MD and Chief Scientist, aided by his team, has undertaken almost 600 research and forensic investigation projects. He is interested in human error and human factors.
Martin is a research auditor for the UK government, EU academic networks and many governments worldwide. Within healthcare he has investigated matters as diverse as neonatal safety in transport, unexplained injuries in the hospital mortuary, sepsis diagnosis and retained instruments. Martin co-authored the very first Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) report that investigated orthopaedic surgery in the UK and Europe. His interest in the law and justice extends to his voluntary role as a justice of the peace (JP) in the Magistrate and Crown courts.
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