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Right before your eyes, how Visual Literacy can improve your health and safety program.

The occupational health and safety field is ever changing. Case in point: New techniques, tools, and processes are constantly being introduced and tested. In today's technology-based society, many of these new tools are manifested in the form of apps and wearables. In other instances, new tools include the visual, or how we view the work environment. One of the emerging visual tools is called visual literacy.

Visual literacy—the ability to interpret the surrounding environment—is a crucial factor of occupational health and safety. But it wasn't always this way. This concept has its beginnings in the art and history disciplines.

Lines, shapes, colors, textures, spaces—these are the five essential elements of art. A focus on each of these elements allows for a different visual outcome. For example, focusing on color lifts certain primary colors from the rest. In another example, the inclusion of step treads helps mitigate slips and falls due to the non-slip nature of the texture. This type of visual literacy is now applied to occupational health and safety with the goal of identifying potential hazards in the workplace.

Introducing: Visual Literacy for the Workplace

The Campbell Institute—an organization dedicated to excellence in environment, health, and safety—introduced the concept of visual literacy in occupational safety. They did so together with the Center for Visual Expertise (COVE), a division of the Toledo Museum of Art. Their goal is simple: to teach employers to "see" different aspects of the workplace which will aid in identifying potential hazards.

COVE was founded by the Toledo Museum of Art and acts to create a synthesis of art educators with safety experts. The result is the creation of "innovative methods" used to teach employers new ways to view their workplaces. This allows employers to pinpoint hazards and mitigate potential accidents before they occur..

In 2015, the Toledo Museum of Art, The Campbell Institute, and Owens Corning created the Visual Literacy Framework to be used by employers. The Visual Literacy Framework is made up of six factors. They are:

The first three on the list—Observe, See, Interpret—are visual in nature. They are also the first steps to attaining visual literacy. The next three on the list—Interpret, Analyze, Describe—explain what is being looked at. In other words, the first half are "reading" factors and the second half are "comprehending" factors.

Evaluating Visual Literacy Metrics

Can visual literacy be applied to occupational health and safety? And if so, would implementing the concept improve overall safety in the workplace? To answer these questions, visual literacy had to be tested. That's exactly what the Campbell Institute and the Toledo Museum of Art did starting in October of 2017.

The two organizations decided to use the safety programs already in place at the test sites. That's because a true visual literacy program wasn't in use yet, but they already had metrics in place to evaluate the effectiveness of a visual literacy program. These sites were already being graded on the number of hazard recognition or near-miss reports that were filed and the number of stop work orders submitted. Cummins—an engine, filtration, and power generation products conglomerate—was one of the companies where visual literacy was first tested.

The idea was to train the workers in visual literacy and determine if there would be any changes in hazard reports. The results expected to show an increase in both near-miss reports and stop work orders.

Visual Literacy Research Results

Were the visual literacy tests successful? Based on the findings from the Cummins manufacturing site, the answer is yes. Cummins began reporting on potential hazards by focusing on elements of visual literacy.

These elements are the lines, shapes, colors, textures, and spaces as mentioned before. The color and line elements were cited the most. For example, a handrail was painted a different color than the rest of the railing so employees would be better able to notice it. Here's a striking result of Cummins employees being trained in visual literacy: The employees found 132 issues and corrected 25 known hazards. Visual literacy works!

Visual Literacy Training

Identifying potential hazards in the workplace is a matter of looking for the right (or wrong) things. Visual literacy may be the new key to finding hazards hiding in plain sight.

To facilitate the introduction of visual literacy into the workplace, the Cove has developed a series of visual literacy modules with the goal of safety in the workplace. The modules are:

In addition, the COVE offers going workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art. These two-day workshops are designed to give participants a comprehensive knowledge of visual literacy and how organizations benefit by implementing the concept.

Is Visual Literacy right for your workplace? Only you can know for sure; however, early results are showing its effectiveness in hazard recognition. And this is something that the Texas Safety Professionals team members will continue to follow as an additional tool in our tool kit.

Do you have questions or concerns about your OSHA compliance?  Contact one of our safety professionalsfor a free consultation.