How Visual Literacy Can Change Your Company’s Culture
About 90% of the information people consume is visual. That much visual data can cause sensory overload, and to handle that, the brain utilizes a form of selective vision – only seeing what our subconscious deems to be important. This is often referred to as visual bias. It’s a survival trait that allows us to identify and focus on critical pieces of information by ignoring what is seemingly nonessential. A lot of the time it’s a good thing. If you’re outside walking along, your brain will likely overlook the blue sky, scattered trees and tall brown grass in order to focus on avoiding any debris on the path in front of you.
However, just because tripping over a downed branch seems like the most obvious risk, doesn’t mean there isn’t a worse hazard lurking just beyond your subconscious blinders….
While most of us go to work in Leopard-free workplaces it does not mean that we’re not susceptible to the same level of risks. The Campbell Institute released a study on visual biases and how to overcome them by developing better visual literacy. The first step to doing so is becoming aware of and understanding our visual biases. Visual biases can be described 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.
Take a look at this example. Based on what you have read so far you know that this image has something to see, but what is it?
Now with the addition of color it becomes a bit more obvious:
Now go back and look at the black and white image, and you can see the Leopard when originally you may not have.
Let’s look at another example of visual bias and how our minds constantly fill in “blanks” depending on what we expect to see.
Are you able to read this?
How abuot this? It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.
Applying Visual Literacy to Workplace Safety
We are more likely to pick up anomalies and potential hazards in the workplace when we make a concerted effort to see the work environment (typically a very familiar place) with “fresh” eyes, and take care to not “fill in” visual details that we are accustomed to being present.
The application of visual literacy to safety began back in 2015 when the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) started working with several companies to develop a program that would enhance employees’ power of perception and hazard recognition. Through the project they were able to develop a new structured way of looking at an environment. Traditional Job Safety Assessments (JSA) provide a good prework check for hazards, but research has shown that a visual bias is when we choose (usually subconsciously) to prioritize things visually which dictates how we start and go about our work. So, when the first question on your JSA is “What hazards do you see?” you’re only going to identify that: hazards that you already see. Can you spot the problem there…?
1.) TMA recommended a different way of observing work areas. Take in the big picture. Look at the entire scene or work area and become aware of the area before zooming into the details.
Referring back to the example of walking along outside, here you see the sky, the grass, the trees and the path in front of you.
2.) Then look for elements of visual literacy: line, shape, color, texture and space. Identify hazards by looking for things with these five elements: horizontal/vertical or curvy lines, shapes or angles, warm or cool colors, rough or smooth surfaces and the amount or lack of space between objects.
Now you’re looking for Leopard’s round spots amongst the straight blades of the grass.
This procedure is designed to slow down the thought process and get the brain outside of its standard routine. This makes it so that observations can be interpreted thoroughly without jumping to conclusions or “filling in the blanks” too quickly.
Actual Case Study Results
A Cummins manufacturing site was one of the companies that took part in the TMA project. They began training employees on visual literacy in October of 2017 and when the project started, they began flagging and categorizing the hazards recognized as a result of the visual literacy training. By March 2018, 225 employees had been trained plant-wide. During that time, they identified 132 issues using the elements of visual literacy and submitted and corrected 25 hazards through the company “Find It Fix It” hazard recognition and correction initiative.
The types of hazards identified using the visual literacy elements in those six months were varied and show the diversity of areas where visual literacy can be helpful in pinpointing potential hazards. Among the many hazards identified, they found 17 slip, trip and fall hazards and nine machine-related hazards. What’s even more interesting was that the majority of hazards identified were non safety-related hazards which refer to hazards to quality or production. This would mean there’s not only a benefit to safety but also a strong operations case to be made for investing in better prework procedures.
I have access to safety management software that allows me to create my own inspections and JHAs, so I created a visual literacy form for our mobile app. After inspecting several areas within our office, I can confidently say the TMA structure really pushes you to approach and view an environment in a new way. Even in my office I spotted hazards that I had never noticed before, and I’m a software guy. I could not imagine the impact this type of system would have on a higher risk workplace. I encourage you to give it a try. Even if you’re not implementing company-wide, just attempt your own visual literacy JHA. What you notice may just surprise you.
And for those still not convinced that they have a visual bias: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahg6qcgoay4