A Clearer Vision on Incident Management

The second guest blog for our Incident Management Month 2017 is by John Dony, the director of the Campbell Institute. Thank you for this great contribution.

Most of us don’t have problems with our vision, but have you ever wondered how much we actually “see” when we look at something? How well can we describe what we see to another person? And how much can this ability to “see” affect safety in our workplaces?

The ability to “read” and communicate visual information is what the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) calls “visual literacy.” While the concept of visual literacy has been around for decades and has been used to improve classroom learning, the Campbell Institute and TMA have a theory: being more “visually literate” can help workers better identify occupational hazards, which can make them safer in the workplace. In fact, good incident management can leverage visual literacy during every step of an incident:

• It can help in the hazard identification stage to aid in preventing incidents from occurring, or could turn a potential incident into a near miss by improving last-minute risk assessment tools and skills
• If an incident does occur, it can assist in the initial incident report written by the worker or a person on scene (at which point the level of detail and description is crucial for eventual discovery of the root cause(s) of the event – as time goes on, evidence and memory fade)
• During the investigation process, it can be very helpful in gathering evidence from the scene and/or witnesses, but also in the broader sense of being able to “see” and piece together all of the various puzzle pieces that are often present in even relatively simple events
• As corrective actions are applied, it can prove useful in both verifying and auditing their effectiveness
• Finally, it’s a great tool for on-going learning by communicating and helping workers understand how to better visually read their environments, wherever they might be

Take the example of an incident that occurs as the result of a routine task – something a worker has done hundreds or even thousands of times. Because the brain might not be actively “reading” the situation after becoming so accustomed to the task – not paying attention to a moving part, a pressure gauge reading, etc. – a worker might miss something. This is not about blame – it’s simply human nature.

This same complacency or lowered risk sensitivity might result in a short, low-detail initial incident report that fails to capture some critical element of the incident, such as an equipment malfunction. If the investigation does not capture the right level of detail during the follow-up activity, this could contribute to not fully finding the root cause(s). As multiple such incidents like this occur, what results is a fundamental failure in the incident management system that is in place, no matter how robust it may be otherwise.

Becoming more visually literate and being better able to observe, see and interpret our environment depends on becoming aware of our visual biases. TMA describes visual biases in three ways:

• Sometimes you cannot see what is in front of you, even if you know it is there
• Once you see something, it is impossible to “un-see” it
• You are always filling in the blanks based on what you expect to be there

Try it out for yourself with this fun exercise. Take this image. Can you see it? By the nature of this question, you know that there is something there to see, but what is that supposed to be?

Visual literacy

When the color of the image is changed, it becomes clear what you are supposed to see:

VIsual literacy

Looking back at the first black and white image, you can still see the panther in the foreground, even when you didn’t see it previously. Once you see something, it is hard to remember what it was like not to see it.

Visual literacy improves hazard awareness

The hypothesis the Institute and TMA have put forth is that by applying visual literacy concepts throughout the hazard recognition as well as incident investigation and management process, an organization can potentially have a positive effect on overall safety results. The Institute is studying the effectiveness of applying these concepts primarily in the hazard recognition area with a cross-industry pilot project.

The Toledo Museum of Art has been working with several companies in the Toledo region, including Owens Corning, a Campbell Institute member. TMA has developed and implemented visual literacy workshops for Owens Corning employees to increase their powers of perception and hazard recognition. The idea behind the workshops is relatively straight-forward – learning to see better allows workers to understand more about their work environment, to spot hazards, and imagine what can happen from those hazards. Having this “ability to see” helps workers to be proactive about their work spaces and take action to mitigate hazards before they can cause an incident. The main point is that visual literacy sensitizes us to our world and environment, helping us to become hyper-aware – and safer.

As part of the Institute’s multi-year research project to study the effects of visual literacy training on increasing hazard awareness and recognition in the workplace, it has enlisted the participation of three Institute members – Cummins, United Rentals and USG. Directors of TMA will design and deliver the visual literacy training; researchers at the Campbell Institute will determine the effectiveness and outcomes of the training.

The Campbell Institute and TMA hope to show the beneficial effect of visual literacy training on hazard recognition skills, and in general, to create a connection between the fields of art education and occupational safety and health. For more background on this research project, download the introductory white paper report, “Visual Literacy: How ‘Learning to See’ Benefits Occupational Safety” from the Campbell Institute website: http://www.thecampbellinstitute.org/research/

When we open both our eyes and minds to fully seeing the big picture, there is no telling how much safer we all can be.

John A. Dony
Director, Campbell Institute
Director, Environmental, Health, Safety & Sustainability
National Safety Council

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John Dony is director of the Campbell Institute, the global environmental, health and safety center of excellence. Mr. Dony sets Institute vision and strategy, develops leading-edge research, and oversees event, partnership and outreach initiatives. He works closely with EHS&S and operations executives, as well as thought leaders from more than 40 member organizations and partners to share best practices from around the world.


  • Risk Assessment is pre-accident investigation or incident simulation. Anticipating and identifying hazards, failure modes, exposures and severity of harm potential paints a picture of what future incidents would look like. Risk Assessment and Incident Investigation should become one system. A gap in one will show itself in the other. Workers must see the risk in their work.

  • You’re quite right there Dave. The two functions should be integrated for maximising prevention. Information from both risk assessment and incident investigation helps detect risks and hazards. Visualizing and foreseeing future incidents would help workers anticipate/see risks and act accordingly.

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