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NSC 2017: Are You “Seeing” Safety Challenges?

The Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council is introducing new research to explain how “learning to see” can help improve workplace safety.

We’ve all heard the adage: “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” “Visual literacy” is a concept well-known to artists and art historians, who are trained to view works of art deeply and critically. They learn to interpret information presented to them in the form of an image, much like the traditional concept of literacy involves using words to interpret information.

The Campbell Institute – the National Safety Council center of excellence for environmental, health and safety management – released a new report at the National Safety Congress in Indianapolis titled, “Visual Literacy: How ‘Learning to See’ Benefits Occupational Safety.” In partnership with the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), the report is part of a multi-year research project to study the effects of visual literacy training on increasing hazard awareness and recognition in the workplace.

TMA has been a strong proponent of visual literacy. On the TMA web site, the museum notes, “…We need to learn to identify, read and understand images – to become literate in visual language – in order to communicate successfully in our increasingly image-saturated culture.”

“At TMA, we believe visual literacy provides an essential skillset for navigating the visual world,” said Mike Deetsch, Emma Leah Bippus director of education and engagement at the Toledo Museum of Art. “Through exercises and activities using great works of art from the TMA collection, we can systematize a way of looking at and understanding the environment around us.”

The concept of visual literacy is not new, but the specific approach to this particular research is unprecedented, according to the Campbell Institute. TMA and the Campbell Institute are encouraging safety professionals to view their workplaces the way one would view a work of art: deeply, critically and completely. If workers “see” an environment in its totality, they theoretically can spot potential hazards and imagine what can happen from those hazards. Having this ability to “see” potential hazards helps workers to be proactive about their work spaces and take action to mitigate hazards before they can cause an incident.

“Our world is becoming increasingly visual, but when we look at something, how much are we really seeing?” said John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute and director of environmental, health, safety and sustainability at the National Safety Council. “Just like learning to read, it is beneficial to train our minds to better ‘see’ the world so we are able to overcome our visual biases. The more hazards we can proactively identify, the safer we’ll be.”

The institute has enlisted the participation of four of its members for this research series – AES, Cummins, Owens Corning and USG. Directors at TMA will design and deliver visual literacy training for each of these organizations. In turn, researchers at the Campbell Institute will determine the effectiveness and outcomes of the training. The stages of the research include:

  • Understanding the current state of hazard identification programs and processes in the companies studied.
  • Determining a baseline for hazard identification/visual literacy “competency” in the companies studied with help from TMA.
  • Monitoring the training/intervention program as it takes place and then periodically assessing key learning/retention as well as hazard identification activities for the next 12 months.
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