Q is for questions

There are many situations where safety and health professionals need to ask questions. From interviewing potential recruits, through safety conversations and audits to accident investigations, the right question, asked in the right way at the right time, might provide the crucial information. The wrong question, or one asked tactlessly, can cause someone to clam up or provide a misleading answer.


We also need to be able to ask questions to build and maintain our own competence. When one person in the room asks sheepishly what they think is a stupid question, there will be at least three others relieved that someone else broached the subject. 

However, although it can be argued that there are no stupid questions, there are plenty of poorly phrased questions, and plenty of ultimately self-defeating ways of asking them.

In its simplest form, a question is a sentence or phrase used to find out information. This could be asking about something the questioner already knows (as with a question in an exam) or about something the questioner wants to know about (for example, during an audit). 

However carefully a question is crafted, what happens next is equally important

Most people understand the importance of asking open questions about specific events rather than closed questions about general behaviour. For example, if you ask, “Do you always follow the safety procedures precisely?”, people might feel compelled to say “Yes”. However, if you ask the open question, “How did you carry out the procedure today?”, you might form a better idea of how this was done, which can be compared with the correct procedure.

Many experienced interviewers use a funnelling technique, starting with open questions and then drilling down to closed questions to ascertain the facts. However, there is more to asking the right questions than knowing the difference between open and closed questions.

Dr Ludmila Musalova, senior consultant at UK safety culture specialist Greenstreet Berman, points out that sometimes a straight question will not elicit the answer you want. She has worked in cultures she describes as “quite macho” where the answer to the direct question, “Are you stressed?”, would probably be “No”. Instead, she suggests: “Ask about a simple behaviour, like taking a lunch break. People will soon tell you why they don’t have time for a lunch break and have to work through to cope with their workload.”

Professor Peter Buckle, ergonomist and principal research fellow at Imperial College, London, suggests three questions to ask when equipment or technology is proposed for a workplace. Instead of the traditional questions – “Who is this designed for?”; “How does it work?”; “When should it be used?” – Buckle suggests asking the opposite: “Who is this not designed for?”; “What happens when it goes wrong?”; When shouldn’t it be used?”. These questions might work equally for risk assessments of equipment already in the workplace. 

Buckle also suggests a question to ask people who know their job so well that they might answer “nothing” to the question “What is difficult about your job?”. Instead he suggests asking: “If I were doing this job, what would I find difficult? What would you warn me about?” This could be a useful way to find out what needs to be written down in a method statement.

We should also not be afraid to ask the same question several times. In an accident investigation, the “five whys” technique encourages us to keep asking: “Why did that happen?” so that, rather than the immediate cause of an accident, we find several causal factors or, according to some theories, a single root cause. 

Business academics Professor Kathleen Wilburn and Dr Ralph Wilburn of St Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, propose repeatedly asking ‘‘What else could happen?’’ to help organisations “to consider the unintended negative consequences and their effects on different stakeholders” (bit.ly/2WA85BR). Their examples relate to large-scale projects such as spraying DDT in an area of Algeria in the 1930s to fight malaria and typhoid. The incidence of the diseases reduced, but the rapid rise in population was not factored in, leading to over-grazing and exhausting the soil within 20 years. The method could apply equally to OSH, suggesting questions such as “What else could happen if we introduce a system of bonuses for reporting hazards?” or “What else could happen if we introduce this safe system of work for work at height?”.

However carefully a question is crafted, what happens next is equally important. If we don’t listen carefully to the answer, we will be none the wiser. 



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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