The Value of Visual Literacy: Learning to See Safety Risks with New Eyes

January 3, 2022 • Missouri Employers Mutual

Safety risks around the workplace seem to be overlooked when an incident happens. An extension cord in the walkway, a sharp tool left near hands and fingers. How often do employees ignore squeaky wheels? Most importantly, what can employers do to address it? Visual literacy is the answer. With the right training, employees can learn to see safety hazards with new eyes – and act on them before it’s too late.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Doug Pontsler. He is the Chairman and Managing Director of the COVE Center of Visual Expertise. Pontsler has previously served as a board member and Chairman of the Campbell Institute with the National Safety Council. His experience helps him guide employees into viewing their workplace with a newer and safer lens.

First, we’ll share the basics of visual literacy. Then, we’ll discuss how that approach relates to safety in the workplace. Finally, we’ll talk about how applying visual literacy can create a safer workplace.

Visual literacy: The basics

Working in the same place every day can cause us to miss things. We see the same equipment. We follow the same safety rules. Above all, we might also miss seeing the same safety hazards. Visual literacy is a term borrowed from the art community. Each person who looks at a piece of art sees something different. A painting, photo or sculpture has a different meaning for everyone who sees it. Our personal experience changes what we see. It also changes the way we react to it.

“Visual literacy is all about what we see, what it means and what we do as a result,” Pontsler explained. He often refers to The Art of Seeing Art™, a program at the Toledo Museum of Art. It encourages participants to take a closer, more thoughtful look at what they see.

The COVE Center of Visual Expertise applies this approach to safety hazards. Every employee has a different view. Some might have a sharp eye for risks. Others may not notice anything at all. When it comes to the workplace, visual literacy is all about teaching employees to see the workplace through the same lens: safety.

Using visual literacy in the workplace

The purpose of visual literacy is to help improve what we see. Its tools and techniques help employees take a closer look at their environment. The goal is to help prevent incidents. “I would hear people, more often than perhaps what I thought I might, say ‘You know, we’ve walked by that a thousand times and we never saw it until the incident occurred’,” Pontsler shared.

Our experience and biases change what we see. “The reality is that we could be seeing as little as ten percent of what we’re looking at,” he added. “The other up to ninety percent is filled in by the brain trying to make sense out of the visual stimuli that we’re collecting.” Employees often do a quick risk assessment before they start working. But sometimes, they need to take a deeper look for hidden risks.

Learning to look closer

Visual literacy helps employees learn to look closer. For instance, an employee may see an overloaded shelf in the workplace. The first step is seeing something that isn’t quite right. The second step is understanding what it means. What are the possible outcomes? If items fall off the shelf, then someone could be injured. Products could be destroyed. Does action need to be taken now? Or can it be addressed later?

The COVE Center trains teams to apply this approach in the workplace. One of their early clients provided the training to 45 employees. The training focused on hazard identification. When it was over, the team took a walk around their workplace. They picked out several hazards – trip hazards, laceration hazards and spaces too tight to work in. Their workplace risk score increased by 30 percent. However, leadership found the discoveries positive. The training gave them the tools and language to spot safety risks.

Improving incident investigations

When an incident happens, employers often want to wrap it up quickly. However, Pontsler finds that visual literacy improves investigation findings. An incident may seem similar to one we’ve seen in the past. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same. “One of the things that we teach in visual literacy is to make sure that we say what we see, not what we think.” Visual literacy increases objectivity. It also helps employees pick out the facts.

Construction worker uses tape measure

Preventing future incidents with visual literacy

Employers may think that taking a closer look means taking extra time. But that extra time isn’t always as much as we think. Further, it’s usually always worth taking. “We all have a responsibility that when something bad happens,” he said, “That we develop an understanding about what happened and why it did, and we make sure that we prevent that from ever occurring again.”

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, tune in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode to learn about how working extra shifts can have an adverse effect on employees.

January 3, 2022
Missouri Employers Mutual
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