Thoughts from the 2022 National Safety Congress in San Diego

I think most would agree that there are worse places to hold the largest gathering of EHS professionals in the United States than San Diego! Great weather, convenient logistics and a wonderful venue all combined to support a great event. Add to the mix a growing number of conference participants as we evolve from the depths of COVID and, you have a winning formula. It was great to see so many colleagues and friends celebrate together and learn from each other. 

Here are a few of my thoughts from the National Safety Congress and Expo and how our work at COVE matters to the common good.

1. Proactive and Preventative – I heard these words throughout Congress in many of the keynotes and technical sessions I attended. It is no surprise that a group of professionals focused on saving and preserving the quality of lives would think this way. After all, improving our safety processes by only focusing on corrective actions after an incident has occurred is an impossible strategy for safety excellence. And while no one states that as the objective, our time is often consumed by that approach by default. We are so busy responding that we lack time or the energy to truly be proactive.

Being proactive in our safety processes requires that we see, assess, and take action in our safety management system gaps and with the hazards that exist in our environment. Visual Literacy as a core competency enhances our ability to do so. We can’t fix what we don’t see and there are legitimate neurological reasons why this is a challenge. Applying tools grounded in art education to slow down (a bit) and see the world around us in a different and more complete way helps close the gap between what we see and what is actually there.

2. Seize the Moment – This was the theme to the Campbell Institute Executive Summit and the focus was leveraging the opportunity that COVID presented to EHS professionals to become more visible and influential during the pandemic. Engagement with and access to the executive level for many EHS professionals rapidly increased as response to the pandemic was developed and executed. The famous quote that originated with Winston Churchill was referenced – “Never let a good crisis go to waste” – and can serve to remind us that with new found reliance we can leverage that reliance to impact our strategies and investment in innovative solutions for the future.

Innovative solutions are all around us – especially when we think of technology. Sensors, wearables, virtual reality, smart PPE and many more were exhibited on the EXPO floor. But innovation also comes in how we think and how our personal growth matters to advancing our safety processes and performance. Recent surveys conducted by IBM, SHRM, and others highlight that our teams need improved problem solving skills, and critical thinking and communication skills. Visual Literacy is a form of critical thinking and accurately describing what we see is essential to being an effective communicator. It is not uncommon for us to reach outside of our comfort zone in order to find new and different solutions. Innovation is all around us, and building competency in seeing is just one more example.

3. Breakthroughs Needed – This is especially important in the areas of serious injury and fatality prevention and roadway safety. We all know the stats. We have a long improvement trend in injuries but a now increasing number of fatalities. We continue to lose far too many lives on our roadways and that number is increasing. Stress is no longer recognized as an emotion, but rather as a driver of certain medical conditions. Recent trends in longevity, education losses, suicides and overdose deaths are all unfavorable.

There are bright spots. Our awareness and candor in discussing these issues have increased. Experiments with solutions continue and rapid changes are occurring driven by COVID and before. Recognizing the importance of diversity of thought in arriving at strategies and execution is increasing and provides better, more inclusive solutions. 

This is just one more area where competence in Visual Literacy helps us interpret more accurately what we see and what we do as a result. Understanding how we are influenced by our visual and inherent personal biases in the interpretations that we make can bring caution to the decisions we make. That is what critical thinking is all about. And Visual Literacy is a form of critical thinking.

The list could be much longer but I chose three that resonated with me throughout Congress. While appearing self-serving in my advocacy for the importance of Visual Literacy, I don’t believe that is actually true. Our need for thinking critically, effectively problem solving, inclusive solutions, and proactive and preventative solutions has perhaps never been higher. The competency Visual Literacy brings to each of us is an innovative solution.

Doug Pontsler

Doug is Chairman and Managing Director for COVE, the Center of Visual Expertise. Launched in 2018 by the Toledo Museum of Art, COVE is dedicated to the application of visual literacy for industrial and service applications with an emphasis on safety. In this leadership role he is responsible for all aspects of the enterprise including thought leadership, product development and client satisfaction. Prior to his current role, Doug was the former vice president of operations sustainability and EHS for Owens Corning. He joined Owens Corning in 2002 and held leadership positions including director of corporate services and vice president of global sourcing. Doug also served as a member of the National Safety Council Board of Directors and as the Chairman of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council. He is a recipient of NSC’s 2019 Distinguished Service to Safety Award. Follow Doug on LinkedIn


Subscribe here!

Get COVE’s blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.

More Blog Post

Behind the Scenes: What Attending a COVE Workshop is All About

Beyond the Clock: Unveiling the Off-the-Job Safety Challenge

COVE 2023 Year in Review