Seeing is not always believing—at least not when it comes to identifying workplace hazards and risks. Over and over again, we hear of workplace incidents that resulted from seemingly recognizable dangers. How and why do these accidents happen? Studies show that despite consistent health and safety training, everything isn’t always as it seems.

According to MIT research, our vision only reflects a gist of what we are actually seeing. “A ton of work supports that this perception that our visual experience is so rich and vivid is just totally wrong,” says first author Michael A. Cohen, a postdoctoral fellow in the Nancy Kanwisher Lab at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Further, Cohen’s research cites numerous empirical results suggesting that the amount of visual information observers can perceive and remember at any given moment is limited. We only see a fraction of reality, and what we do see is all dependent on memory and personal experience. According to Adam Levine, Deputy Director of the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), “in the best cases, we call this application of memory intuition, but in most cases, it manifests negatively as bias.” This explains why preventable workplace hazards and risks are easily overlooked and is cause for concern for health and safety leaders. How can we foster safe workplaces when we can’t properly see them? The answer? Visual literacy.

Visual literacy has been used for decades and is most commonly applied in art and education to help people better understand and retain information. According to TMA, visual literacy is, “the ability to, read, comprehend and write visual language.” But recently, these principles have been applied in the workplace setting, as a learned skill and tool to better identify occupational hazards that could lead to incidents. The Campbell Institute in collaboration with the National Safety Council, recently published a white paper, Visual Literacy: How “Learning to See” Benefits Occupational Health and Safety. The white paper details what visual literacy is and how it benefits those in the occupational health and safety industry. It also goes on to outline a new research project involving the Campbell Institute, its members and partners and the Toledo Museum of Art, that hopes to demonstrate the beneficial effect of visual literacy training on hazard recognition skills.

According to the white paper, line, shape, color, texture, and space are crucial elements to be considered when evaluating your work environment. The document goes on to say, “being able to scan and describe a workplace environment in a systematic fashion can aid in pinpointing potential hazards and using a common language to convey observations to others.” The connection is clear—when workers are properly trained on how to visually identify hazards and imagine potential consequences, it can result in improved workplace health and safety.

TMA has been in collaboration with Owens Corning, a Campbell Institute member, to develop and implement visual literacy training to global Owens Corning employees. As a result, Owens Corning identified a direct correlation between visual literacy, hazard recognition and incident investigation. The company also identified a clear need to revise their hazard recognition training to include a defined visual vocabulary.

From this, COVE (The Center of Visual Expertise) was created by TMA to advise companies on the application of visual literacy to industrial applications with a focus on safety.  COVE delivers workshops where subject matter experts train all levels of employees on the principles of visual literacy and a disciplined method to Seeing the Whole PICTURE™.  These individuals then return to their respective companies and sites to train their own teams.

“You might consider it to be a bit unusual to think about art and safety in the same conversation,” said Doug Pontsler, Chairman and Managing Director for TMA’s Center of Visual Expertise (COVE) and former vice president of operations sustainability and EHS at Owens Corning, “but when we realized that a more rigorous approach to ‘learning to see’ borrowed from the art world might help us improve our ability to observe the hazards that are often right in front of us, we thought it was worth exploration.”

Doug will be presenting on visual literacy at the 2018 Gensuite Conference, and Gensuite looks to continue our relationship with COVE to apply visual literacy training to Gensuite’s hazard recognition and risk assessment cloud-based applications.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *