If we fail to truly see the hazard, we are less likely to properly interpret the risk associated with that hazard. And it follows, then, that we are far less likely to effectively manage the risk. Failure to effectively manage risk can have potentially devastating consequences under certain circumstances.
Research indicates that we actually see as little as 10 percent of what we are looking at. Our brains fill in the rest. The portion (up to 90 percent) that our brains fill in is strongly influenced by what we expect to see, our visual biases. It is influenced by our life experiences, our training, background, what we’ve seen before, even by our biology. It’s actually, in part, a built-in survival mechanism to help us deal with the outside world. Because if we actually processed every bit of sensory ‘data’ that we are confronted with, we would likely be overwhelmed and unable to function effectively.
Most of the time – the vast majority of the time – this works for us just fine. That is clearly borne out by our everyday experiences. But is it good enough for us when it comes to safety? The health and wellbeing of our coworkers, friends, and family? Are we comfortable sending workers out into the field to conduct a risk assessment, a job observation, a Job Hazard Analysis, or a safety audit knowing that they may only be really seeing about 10% of what is in front of them, and their brains are filling in the rest? Or sending a maintenance crew out to perform critical tasks in a potentially hazardous scenario? Likely not.
We basically see with our brains, not our eyes. Our brains send signals to our eyes to tell them what to look at, what to look for, how long to look at it, where to look, etc. Our brains, then, process the information sent to us through our eyes. That’s the good news in this story. Seeing is a learned behavior. That means we can learn to see better. We can train ourselves to see more effectively. There are techniques, skills, concepts that we can learn and practice to make us more effective at seeing.
Visual Literacy – or the ‘art of learning to see art’ – has its foundations in providing those very concepts, skills, and techniques. Visual Literacy, initially developed in the art world decades ago to help people better see, understand, and appreciate art, can help us in the safety world. COVE – the Center of Visual Expertise based at the Toledo Museum of Art, has accomplished just that. COVE’s workshops and modules offer unique and distinctive experiences to develop critical thinking skills and improved objectivity to help address the visual biases that influence that 90 percent we talked about above. And they provide specific, targeted techniques and skills to learn to see more effectively. And the best part? Visual Literacy isn’t yet another new safety program to roll-out in your organization. It is more like a discipline and a set of concepts and tools that can be integrated into your existing suite of safety tools, processes, and systems to make them even better.
Seeing hazards and exposures more effectively can allow us to more effectively comprehend or interpret the risk associated with those hazards. And that positions us to more effectively manage the risk. By managing the risk effectively we are much more likely to avoid, mitigate, or eliminate the potentially devastating consequences they may represent.