Visual Literacy in Safety

How much do we actually “see” when we look at something? How well do we describe what we see? And how much does this “sight” affect workplace safety? Read on to discover how visual literacy helps identify workplace hazards.

The Relationship Between Visual Literacy and Safety

Visual literacy is the ability to “read” and communicate visual information. While the concept of visual literacy is decades-old, the Campbell Institute and Toledo Museum of Art theorize that visual literacy helps workers better identify occupational hazards, making workplaces safer.

Every incident management step can leverage visual literacy:

  1. Hazard identification stage: Aids preventing incidents from occurring or turns a potential incident into a near miss by improving last-minute risk assessment tools and skills
  2. Initial incident report:  Assists in the level of detail and description crucial for eventual discovery of the root cause(s)
  3. Investigation process: Gathers evidence from the scene and/or witnesses, but also piece together all of the various puzzle pieces
  4. Corrective actions: Verifies and audits their effectiveness
  5. On-going learning: Helping workers understand how to better visually read their environments

For example, a routine task results in an incident. The brain might not actively “read” the situation after becoming so accustomed to the task, and miss something. This is simply human nature.

Similarly, a lowered risk sensitivity might result in a short, low-detail initial incident report that fails to capture some critical element, such as an equipment malfunction. A poor investigation may contribute to not fully finding the root cause(s). Multiple incidents like this results in a fundamentally failing incident management system.

Your Visual Biases

Visual literacy in safety depends on becoming aware of our visual biases. For instance:

• 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 fill in the blanks based on expectations

Try it out for yourself with this fun exercise.

Take this image. Can you see it? By the nature of this question, you know there is something there, but what is it?

Visual literacy

However, adding color makes it clear:

VIsual literacy

Now, look back at the first image. You can see the leopard in the foreground, even though you didn’t see it previously.

In other words, once you see something, it is hard to "unsee" it. The same applies in a hazard context. In summary, applying visual literacy concepts to hazard recognition alongside the incident management process potentially positively affects safety. 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.

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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.

2 Comments

  • 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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