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Hazard Appreciation

The Visual Literacy Approach Applies A Systematic Approach To Seeing.

“If it was a snake, it would have bitten you.” That’s the colloquial expression I heard often as I was growing up. It was a favorite response when I was searching for something that was in clear view. It’s meaning, while still figurative, comes much closer to literal when we fail to see clearly present hazards in the workplace that could potentially bite.

The Campbell Institute, a branch of the National Safety Council (NSC), has partnered with the Toledo Museum of Art to study the application of visual literacy techniques in safety. The NSC recognizes the importance of a systematic approach to seeing hazards in a work or off-work environment.

In short, the techniques used in art appreciation may be valuable in hazard identification. There is an abundance of literature on visual literacy as it applies to visual arts; not so much in hazard recognition. Regardless, the approach is interesting.

It’s been suggested that we see only 10 percent of what we think we see. This can be attributed to a number of factors, but suffice it to say that there is a risk that in the process of evaluating our environments, we could easily miss critical hazards.

Looking is not always synonymous with seeing. The visual literacy approach applies a systematic approach to seeing. Yes, seeing requires more than just a casual glance. It requires a conscious effort and that may require a bit more time too.

When one approaches a painting hanging on the wall of a museum, one can casually look at the painting, form an opinion and go on to the next; or one can focus more closely on the characteristics of the painting. That second approach may also be applied to the detection of environmental hazards. In the art world, a multi-step system is practiced:

1. Look. Prepare to see. This is a deliberate physical action. Allow sufficient time. Position yourself favorably.

2. Observe. Actively start a mental inventory of the image.

3. See. Mentally process the visual information. Recognize, connect, begin to create meaning.

4. Describe. Systematically identify and organize what is before you.

5. Analyze. Apply reason to what you’ve seen and described – quantitative and qualitative.

6. Interpret. Combine the previous steps to make judgments and/or conclusions – good, bad, indifferent.

The “Describe” step may be the most valuable in that articulating what you see leads to improved retention. In visual arts, students are taught to describe the characteristics of the piece – things like lines, shapes, color, texture, balance, emphasis, proportion, etc. However, a work environment is substantially different than a museum environment.

I will suggest that in a potential risk environment, two description categories are appropriate: static and dynamic. I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting what I’ve found to be critical workplace observation details.

When seeing a static situation, look for:

  • Order. Are things where they belong? Spills, clutter, disorganization?
  • Condition. Is what you see in good condition or is it broken, worn or damaged?
  • Position/Orientation. How are objects positioned in space (high, low, left, right) and with respect to other objects?
  • Deviation. Is anything unusual, unexpected, crooked, unbalanced, leaning, unsymmetrical?
  • Color/contrast. Stains, corrosion, effects of heat?
  • Environment. What are the effects of weather, lighting, moisture, etc.?

When seeing a dynamic situation, look for:

  • Energy source(s). What’s causing movement or could cause movement?
  • Path. What is the path or potential path of energy?
  • Force. How much force is behind a moving object?
  • Ergonomics. What human factors may be applied?
  • Safeguards. What prevents the undesired interaction between the energy source and people?

I step out of the pickup truck and pause a moment to look at the area. In an overview, I see several conveyors and a screening tower. A water hose is stretched across my path to the tower. There is an accumulation of fines at the base of the stairway, and material has also accumulated under the tail pulleys. The handrails are painted yellow except for one section on the left near the top of the first stairway. I also see rust forming on the handrail and that the midrail is missing.

There are a couple dozen rocks on the ground that are greater than 4-in. in diameter that appear to have come from the screen. As I approach the stairway, I see that it is set at a normal angle and that there are rocks on most of the steps. One of the rocks had enough force to dent the stair tread. The conveyors and the screen are operating. I hear the familiar sound of a splice passing over the idlers and observe that the tail pulley guards and drive guards appear to be solidly in place.

Familiarity with the area may be one of the most common reasons for missing (not seeing) hazards. In the description depicted above, many of the observations articulated may have existed for days – even weeks. Systematically identifying (articulating) what is seen will help to separate what’s new from what’s old. Stop for a moment now. Look around the room. See what is there. Describe what you see.

What were the colors, size and positions of objects in the room? Practicing this version of visual literacy (hazard appreciation) will help to open not just your eyes, but your mind to your work environment.