Visual literacy helps security professionals see the big picture

Visual lessons grounded in arts education can make a difference in what you see and how to interpret meaning. This idea holds intriguing potential for identifying safety hazards, where it’s easy to miss important details in an all-too-familiar work environment.

“Generally, it takes an incident to inform us that a danger exists. While it’s really important that when we have an incident we identify it and fix it, it’s also a bad way to run a security program if that’s all you’re focusing on,” says Doug Pontsler, president and CEO of the Center of Visual Expertise (COVE), an organization that teaches visual literacy applied to industrial and workplace safety.

He posits that most people can improve their ability to see things around them in more detail, especially in familiar surroundings. And, if workers see what they might otherwise miss, they are likely to take action and improve their own personal safety as well as the safety of others.

It was this notion that prompted Pontsler to explore visual literacy training and how it could be applied to health and safety. In 2015, he worked as a safety professional at fiberglass composite manufacturer Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio. Although the company has had success with its safety practices, management has sought to improve hazard recognition.

Visual Literacy: From Art to Safety

By chance, Pontsler became aware of a program taught at the Toledo Museum of Art called “Learning to See”. This was training in observation techniques for the analysis and interpretation of works of art. The application of visual literacy in art seeks to focus on the finer details of what may not be obvious and to unlock the meaning of images created by an artist. It also teaches that personal experiences, expectations, and biases can limit the scope of what is seen and, more importantly, what might be missed. Pontsler quickly realized that these techniques could be applied to workplace safety.

“If we could learn to see better, then we could do a better job (of identifying hazards),” he says. “That’s what sparked our interest in learning more about visual literacy and meeting with the museum to ask, ‘How can we take these lessons in arts education and make them relevant in the work we do?’ “”

COVE workshops usually take place in museums. Half the time is spent in the classrooms learning the techniques and the other half is spent applying that knowledge in the museum galleries. Artwork and visual exercises teach visual literacy methods, then the focus shifts to industrial applications where the same approach is applied. For example, students can look at a work of art in a moment to study its detailed composition, then move on to an exercise where they examine a photograph of a warehouse to spot hazards applying the same skills.

Experience, expectations and prejudice guide the mind’s eye

Everyone tends to focus on specific things when they first watch anything, but not everyone sees the same thing, Pontsler says. There are commonalities in what most people see easily, but each of us has a natural tendency when we look at something to focus on certain elements. Everyone pays attention to certain details while ignoring others. Experiences, expectations and biases are the factors that guide the mind in terms of what it sees.

“We see with our brain, influenced by our expectations and our experiences. That’s how the brain works,” says Pontsler, explaining that due to these factors, details can easily go unnoticed. Once you realize this is happening, you can recognize when you are falling into this trap. “We provide tools and techniques that allow you to get out of it. The good news is that we can do something about it. There are disciplines that can be applied to break down what we see that might be extremely familiar.

In its own research, COVE assessed the potential impact of unseen hazards. COVE’s analysis of data compiled at a company on 17,000 incidents over 20 years showed that it was likely that in 24% of those incidents, unseen hazards played a significant or contributing role.

By practicing visual literacy, you are consciously trying to see more, interpret more, and ultimately take more action. Besides being aware of things that can obscure what you see, the key to visual literacy is to slow down and take more time. This provides a new perspective and allows you to see more details.

Slowing down sounds easy enough, but as Pontsler says, it’s something “unpopular in our own minds.” Everyone has a lot to do, so they tend to rush, and people often believe that the faster they get things done, the more they can accomplish.

“We search a lot and we interpret immediately,” he says. “But you can only see 10% of what you think you see. Our brain does the rest.

He cites the example of someone who proofreads what he writes. Their brain knows what should be on the page, but they often don’t notice the missing words. “We always fill in the blanks with what we’re watching,” Pontsler says.

Visual literacy gives people permission to identify the things that concern them.

“In my career, I don’t know if I ever thought of anything we did with our people as giving them permission,” Pontsler says. “To me, that’s such a powerful statement. If we’re going to train our employees to see things, then we should expect that there are things we need to address and give them permission to bring up. They shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

Dan McLean is Senior Director of Content Marketing at Intelex-TechnologiesEHSQ management software provider. He was an information technology publisher and writer for over 25 years and spent seven years as IT market research manager for International Data Corporation in Canada. Additionally, he has led content marketing teams for Rogers Communications, OpenText Corporation, and Vendasta Technologies, and was a senior director of communications at Cisco Systems for eight years.

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