A new research project by the Campbell Institute (the research division of the National Safety Council) and the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) is exploring the application of visual literacy to workplace safety.

What Is Visual Literacy?

According to a recent report by the Campbell Institute (the research division of the National Safety Council), visual literacy is the ability to “‘read’ or decode visual information” along with the ability to “write or create visuals to convey information.” Simply put, according to Mike Deetsch, director of education and engagement at the TMA, visual literacy is what you see, what it means and what you do about it.

The TMA specifically focuses on five elements when teaching visual literacy: line, shape, color, texture and space. Visual literacy enables people to look at art more critically and appreciatively. The TMA has traditionally taught visual literacy to children, helping them learn about art and develop basic literacy skills.

Visual Literacy in the Workplace

However, in the last couple of years, the TMA has been exploring the use of visual literacy training in improving workplace safety. The museum piloted a six-hour visual literacy workshop with the Owens Corning headquarters environmental health and safety (EHS) team. From there, the TMA was put in contact with the Campbell Institute, and they decided to partner on a research project to explore the application of visual literacy training to workplace safety.

The Campbell Institute report notes that “being able to scan and describe a workplace environment in a systematic fashion can aid in pinpointing potential hazards and using a common language to convey observations to others.” Both of these abilities are critical competencies for people in EHS roles especially.

Joy Inouye, a research associate at the National Safety Council, says, “Our eyes become complacent.” We get used to what we see every day at work, and our minds “fill in the details” instead of noticing them. “Sometimes, we don’t see that something is wrong until something wrong actually happens.”

Visual Literacy Training

After participating in a visual literacy training, Owens Corning’s global EHS team added “a clearly defined visual vocabulary” to its hazard recognition training. According to the Campbell Institute report, the scaffolded approach Owens Corning uses, in which each worker focuses on one hazard at a time, “allows the hazard recognition team time to fully develop their visual acumen before taking on the ‘full picture.’”

As part of the Campbell Institute research project, Owens Corning, Cummins Engines, USG and United Rentals is sending up to three workers – the site EHS lead, someone responsible for a specific safety initiative and an HR or training leader – to the TMA for visual literacy training. Those workers then return to their companies to train their teams. Inouye says there’s been some discussion about turning the workshops into online training, but right now, the program is offered through in-person training only.

Inouye describes two of the activities included in training: In one, a PowerPoint slide shows an image of a warehouse setting, and participants are asked to look for geometric shapes. In one workshop, a participant noticed that the shape of a ladder against a wall was a triangle; then, he noticed that the angle wasn’t a safe angle, and the person on the ladder shouldn’t be standing on it at that angle, especially without someone to spot him.

In another activity, two people stand back to back. One describes a painting, and the other draws what she is describing without asking any clarifying questions. Inouye says the researchers are hoping that this type of activity will help workers complete better job safety analyses (JSAs) by learning “how to perceive and describe” the environment and “attune [their] language to the audience” reading the JSA.

Measuring Visual Literacy Training

The Campbell Institute/TMA research project has proposed several metrics to measure the effectiveness of visual literacy training, including both qualitative and quantitative metrics. Qualitative metrics include the quality of JSAs and hazard recognition reports, workers’ ability to recognize hazards, worker satisfaction with JSAs, and participants’ ability to apply the visual literacy concepts weeks and months after training.

Quantitative metrics include the number of proactive hazard recognition or near miss reports filed, the number of stop work orders filed, the frequency and number of JSAs, and the number of “all clear” JSAs submitted.

In 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employees reported about 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses, and state and local government employees reported about 752,600. That year, 4,836 U.S. workers were killed in work-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also reports that occupational injuries and fatalities cost the U.S. economy about $250 billion in 2007.

Decreasing these numbers requires effective training that goes beyond compliance handbooks and endless PowerPoint slides. As organizations seek to develop more engaging health and safety training, perhaps they should look to visual literacy as a competency that can improve their employees’ ability to observe and address hazards at work.

Training Industry, Inc. released its first annual Top 20 list of Health and Safety Training Companies this year.