Visual Literacy for Occupational Safety


Visual Literacy for Safety Image

This article is an interview on the topic of using visual literacy to improve occupational safety and the workplace, and in particular to improve hazard recognition and identification.

It’s another in our occasional series of interviews with various subject matter experts in training, safety, safety training, and related disciplines. In this interview, we’re talking with Doug Pontsler of the Center of Visual Expertise. They’re doing a lot of interesting and good work on applying the visual literacy skills we commonly associate with artists to occupational safety and heatlh.

We think we’ll find this topic helpful and interesting, so let’s get right to learning what visual literacy is and how developing our skills in visual literacy can help us improve occupational safety at the workplace. As you’ll see, there’s a recording of our discussion immediately below. If you’d prefer to read instead of listen, we’ve also typed up the transcript if you click the MORE button.

Visual Literacy for Safety

Convergence Training: Hi, everybody, and welcome. This is Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training, Senior Learning & Development Specialist, with another of our web/pod/audiocast series here.

Today we have a cool and somewhat-unusual guest for us on a kind of unique subject matter. We have Doug Pontsler, and Doug is the chairman and managing director of COVE, or the Center of Visual Expertise, and Doug’s here to talk with us about visual literacy in the context of occupational safety. We’re interested in this topic in general, and Convergence is interested in it also because we put a lot of work into the visuals for our safety training courses.

So with that, Doug, thank you very much for coming and if you could tell us a little more about yourself, about COVE, and about this project, that would be great.

Doug Pontsler: Awesome, Jeff. Well thanks for the opportunity to talk to you. First of all, just a little background on myself. I retired in February of this year from Owens-Corning after nearly 40 years of industrial experience, 16 of that with Owens-Corning, 23 years with Eaton Corporation. So I’ve been at the industrial world for a long time in a number of different roles. And when I retired from Owens-Corning, I was the Vice President of Operations and Sustainability and Environmental Health and Safety.

And it was in that environmental, health, and safety space, beginning in 2015, that we started to investigate visual literacy, and what visual literacy meant, and whether there was an opportunity to play a role in our safety program. And as a result of that investigation, beginning in 2015 and then the engagement of some other peer companies that were also interested in the same subject matter, we arrived at determining that yes, this could matter to our working safely. We worked with the Toledo Museum of Art, whom we were conferring with on what visual literacy was, and we developed expertise in being able to establish that bridge from what has historically been taught in art education to its application from an industrial perspective.

So when I retired from Owens-Corning, I joined the Toledo Museum of Art as Chairman and Director of COVE in order to advance that thinking. So, I’m delighted to be with you today.

What Is Visual Literacy?

Convergence Training: Yeah, we’re excited! OK, so if I can move to our second question here, maybe you could introduce to us at a high level and explain to us what the term visual literacy means.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, a great question, and one that can actually be misunderstood if you think about it only intuitively.

One of the things that we realized is that the shorthand for visual literacy is really learning to see. And in art education, that’s been taught for decades in terms of being able to look at a piece of art, or an object, and be able to really appreciate and understand the finer details of that piece of art or object.

And visual literacy really centers around a few things, and that is:

  1. What is it that you see?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. And as a result of what does it mean, what action would you take as a result of that? You know, what’s your interpretation of that thing that you’re examining?

And, as adults, we do a lot of looking and scanning, but we don’t do a lot of seeing. And we also do a lot of looking and then sort of jumping to an interpretation without necessarily really thinking through what it is that we’re looking at and whether we are actually seeing everything in front of us or not.

So visual literacy gives us a discipline and a structure that’s utilized in art education to be able to look at something, be able to really see what’s there, really be able to think about what that means and what the interpretation of that looks like, and then being able to determine what action might be appropriate.

And if you think about the work that we do in safety around hazard recognition, or around incident investigations, or around design for safety reviews, and we can continue to go down the list of the tactical things that go on at our enterprises every day, you know it’s really all based upon looking, seeing, and understanding.

And if we think about all of the training that we do in our organizations today, we do a lot of training around, whether they’re technical aspects or leadership or a number of things, you’re subjected to training nearly every day from your coworkers and their experiences vs. ours.

But if the thing that’s most fundamental to the work that we do as safety professionals is seeing, when is the last time that any of us took a class in seeing, or focused on how can we see better than we do today, and that’s what visual literacy is really all about–being able to take in our environment and be able to truly see what’s there.

Can People Learn or Develop Visual Literacy?

Convergence Training: Thanks. That’s a really excellent answer.

The brain devotes a lot of its power to processing vision, and that’s important if you’re evolving on the African savannah and you have to watch out for a lion, but we don’t get a lot of training on how to see in the modern world (and I’ll ask a question about that in just a moment).

It’s also interesting that you talked about visual literacy being a three-step process, seeing, meaning, and then interpreting and acting, and I was just in a webinar the other day, being the subject matter expert with the ASSP, and I was referring to Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist’s book about thinking fast and slow, and we’re hardwired to think fast, and sometimes that doesn’t help us, and so this is yet another message to think slowly and overcome your biases and don’t automatically jump to conclusions and learn to interpret things better.

So great, thanks for that wonderful answer. Next question: If your goal is to teach people visual literacy, am I correct in assuming that some people are either born with more visual literacy or somehow develop it on their own, while on the other hand, some people have less, and for those who do have less, is this something they can learn, or are they kind of stuck at a lower level?

Doug Pontsler: No, I think anyone can improve their ability to see what’s in front of them: be able to apply these disciplines and processes to be able to see more completely. Whatever your visual processing skills were in the past, we can always get better.

What we find is that most people typically don’t think about these as skills that can be developed. We’re confident that when we look at something, we’re actually seeing what’s there. And the reality is that we’re not, and often times the way that plays itself out in the industrial world that we work in…I don’t know how many times, after an incident, someone might say “You know, I have walked by that a thousand times, and I never saw that trip hazard, or I never saw that sharp edge.” Or, in my history, I’ve had plant leaders who’ve asked me to send resources into plants to provide a fresh set of eyes–you know, someone to come in and be able to look at something, because the plant leader feels they can no longer look at the forest for the trees. And I certainly support that.

It’s not a bad practice at all and there’s a lot of good that can come from it. But it begs the question of why we can’t always see the things that we should be seeing that are right in front of us.

The good news is that a lot of times, our history and our experiences and biases that we have lead us to good conclusions. So most of the time, we’re pretty good at being able to see things and being able to understand what they mean and act accordingly.

But it’s those few times when we don’t that’s the difference between perfection and the level of performance we might actually be in. And quite honestly, a lot of the interest in visual literacy comes from companies and individuals who have had that long tail of improvement, and they’ve come a long way in terms of improving their safety performance, but the more progress you make, the more difficult those remaining steps are, and they’re looking for new and different solutions to improve the skill level of their people and themselves to be more effective in their safety practice.

Convergence Training: That’s good. That’s an interesting point at the end about getting those diminishing marginal returns in safety and visual literacy being yet another tool to help organizations get one notch safer.

I’m glad this is something people can learn, and that jibes with my experience as a learning & development specialist. Sometimes people think that people are “born with something” and therefore say or believe “I can’t get it,” so this brings up the whole idea of grit, and of working, and of learning.

And another thing you pointed out, which was great, was the value of having a professional, or a more experienced person with mastery in a topic point out to you that “hey, this is actually a skill, and you don’t have it, but you can get better at it, and I can help you…you can practice it, I can give you constructive feedback, and as a result you can improve.” But of course, sometimes we don’t know we have a particular skill gap.

Doug Pontsler: That’s the beauty of our partnership with the Toledo Museum of Art. You know, the Toledo Museum of Art has that expertise in being able to look, to interpret, and as a result being able to select the appropriate actions to take as it relates to art and to art education. And we bring the industrial component, in terms of “how does that apply to the work that we do?” And so it’s through this partnership with the Toledo Museum of Art that resulted in the creation of this enterprise.

Occupational Safety and Health as a Multidisciplinary Field

Convergence Training: I’m glad you called that out. I love that partnership in general. It’s not every day you’re talking about occupational safety and the art museum, so I think that’s cool.

Before we dig deeper into the use of visual literacy for improving visual literacy for occupational safety, how is this part of a bigger movement for increasing the use of soft skills and soft sciences such as organizational behavior, management studies, social psychology, learning theory, and training in occupational safety?

Side note: this question came in part from mention of this idea in a Campbell Institute white paper on Visual Literacy and Occupational Safety.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, I think it fits in that same space. I wouldn’t tell you it was born out of any natural extension of those practices that we see today–an emphasis on human performance and how do we keep our enterprises capable of performing at the level that we want them to perform at. How do we appreciate the role that human factors and fatigue and all those other issues come into play?

I think the commonality with those things, with respect to visual literacy, is that we can learn from other disciplines and we can apply that learning into something having to do with safety. And I think that’s the relationship that exists between our work and visual literacy and some of the work that goes on in those other areas.

Using Visual Literacy to Separate The “Signal” from the “Noise”

Convergence Training: Great. And another question, somewhat based on a white paper of yours and also on a best-selling book, The Signal and the Noise, I wonder if you can explain to us how visual literacy might improve occupational safety by improving a person’s ability to see a “signal,” meaning a risk or a hazard, through the noise, which means the everyday events that are familiar, routine, safe, and that don’t lead to a negative outcome.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, great question.

You know, the heart of what we focus on when it comes to the application of visual literacy in the workplace is having a disciplined way of looking at a situation, looking at a work environment, looking at a piece of equipment, and having a method of being able to process what’s in front of you.

Each of us, as individuals, when we look at a particular thing…it could be construction work that’s under way, it could be the design of a piece of equipment, it could be a number of things…we are drawn to certain things because of a natural sort of history of set of biases of things we’re comfortable with, and as a result we don’t necessarily look at everything that’s there. We’re drawn to certain characteristics. Which opens up the possibility that we could miss some things that are really important.

We teach the methodology of leveraging the elements of art, which are lines and shapes and colors and space and texture, in order to be able to sort of step back at what we would naturally look at and start to look at things that are consistent in art and in objects.

So when we start to look for lines, we start to see things that we might not see if we had not been looking for lines. When we start to look for colors, we start to see things we might not have looked for if we had not been looking for colors. So if we quickly step our way through a structure that involves those elements of art, all of the sudden we are beginning to see things that we wouldn’t naturally have seen.

And the connection to safety is simply some of those things that we didn’t see because we weren’t following some sort of disciplined process, might be the hazard that creates the incident when that human and hazard come together.

5 Core Elements of Visual Literacy

Convergence Training: Good answer. And it leads really nicely into my next question. From reading your materials, I know that you have called out five specific elements of design, and you just talked about a couple, including line and color.

I wonder if you could tell us what those five elements are and maybe go into a little detail about each of the five?

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, happy to.

First of all-lines. Pretty self-explanatory in terms of looking at something and looking at the lines that are present or looking at something and looking at things that should be aligned but are not. An example could be a cord on the floor, and there’s a coil in the cord that’s sticking up, and that could be a trip hazard.

We have some things that are not straight in a manufacturing or distribution facility, or any other facility. Like a bracket that should be straight and isn’t, it might have been struck by a powered industrial vehicle, so it needs to be repaired so it won’t cause a problem.

So we’re looking for those characteristics that would lead us to something that could be wrong.

Another would be space. In the terms of space, it’s interesting that with many of the companies we’ve worked with, as we’ve learned more and more about space, it’s sort of tied in with the ergonomics issue: do we have enough space to safely do the work that we need to do?

You know, a common challenge, especially for maintenance individuals, is “Is there enough space for them to do the work, especially on a production line, or a piece of equipment, or has that space been compromised because we’re trying to be so efficient with our product line that we really don’t leave enough room for other things that will go on and will present a hazard when they’re under way.

A third is colors. Often with colors, we’re looking for contrast and things that are a little different. You know, on a nice, shiny, clean floor, it could be a spill, which may look different than the floor, which would present a hazard.

So we move through those elements of art in order to identify those things that may be abnormal conditions.

Convergence Training: Great, and if you we have line, shape, and color, what are the other two art elements?

Doug Pontsler: Lines, shapes, colors, space, and texture.

A Six-Step Process for Visually “Reading” the Work Environment

Convergence Training: Great, that’s all five.

So those are the five elements of design. So once people are familiar with the five elements of design, what’s the six-step process you recommend people to use to visually read their work environment for safety? How can they use those when they’re at work?

Doug Pontsler: What we do, Jeff, is we expand upon the whole idea of (a) moving from looking to seeing, (b) from describing to interpreting, and (c) being able to take action as a result.

So when we talk about those six things, we’re really talking about looking, observing, and seeing. And if you think about this as a triangle (or a pyramid), we begin at the looking stage, and we are getting into more and more detail until we really see what’s there.

And then once we see what’s there, we have to have an ability to describe it so we can explain it to others, and we can also interpret what that means. So we move from that “see’ component up to being able to describe it, and typically describe it with a set of common language, so others know what we’re talking about. That’s especially important in a manufacturing environment, when we’re trying to communicate the issues that we’re seeing in a way that others can understand it. And many companies have their own “language,” and that’s OK, but it’s important that that language is common among the people who need to know what we’re talking about.

And then, by being able to describe it, we can then analyze what’s there, we can really begin to understand what that means, which leads to the interpretation. Does it not deserve action, or does it deserve action, and if so, what’s the appropriate action?

The thing we’re trying to break is the idea of “look and interpret/look and interpret/look and interpret.” And, under time pressure, or whether it’s self-created or not, we often do that. We often look and then leap to a conclusion, and that’s the cycle we want to break, in terms of not doing that, so we can be more confident in terms of our interpretation.

Visual Biases and an Inability to Correctly Identify Occupational Hazards and Risks

Convergence Training: Great, I love that, that’s a good answer.

So, multiple times now, you’ve talked about visual biases, and clearly this idea of “look and interpret” that you’re trying to break is related to visual biases.

I wonder if you could tell us more about visual biases and how these visual biases are related to our inability to see risks and hazards in the workplace.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah. The visual bias component just simply comes from our experiences.

You know, when we enter a particular situation, we may have experiences that tell us what we might anticipate seeing. And because of that, that’s what we see.

And if we’re totally objective about looking at a situation and looking to see what’s there, then we might not be so conditioned to expect what we see before we’re there.

So, you know, some people might walk into a particular situation and they see all the trip hazards, they see all the working from heights issues, etc., but they miss other things that really aren’t in their normal thinking process. And that’s what we’re trying to open up, is a broader view of the world.

Convergence Training: Great. You know, I bet you’ve seen this–I think a good example that’s not specific to occupational safety but is still relevant is the video on YouTube where you’re asked to count the number of times people pass a basketball. And you’re counting so closely, because that’s what you’re looking for, that you don’t realize a bear walks right across the screen.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, that’s right, that’s a nice experiment.

Convergence Training: Yeah, you can miss it completely, and then when you’re told about it, you can’t imagine how you missed it. And that’s similar to what you’re talking about, I guess.

Doug Pontsler: One of the key learning moments we go through and teach to is this whole idea that once you see something, it’s very hard to unsee it. So there’s great value in seeing something for the first time.

We take people through a series of photographs that begin in black and white and there’s a predator that’s in that picture, but you just can’t see it because it blends into the black and white background of the photos. But as we add color, the predator becomes obvious, because the contrast provides that view. And that all makes sense, and it probably doesn’t come as a bit surprise. But what is interesting is that when we go back to the black and white photos, you can now see the predator that you didn’t see the first time.

And I’m pretty confident that months or years later, if you pick up that same black and white photograph again, it might take you a little time to orient yourself, but you’ll be conditioned to remember that there’s a predator in the bottom right-hand corner and you will still be able to see the predator.

How to Learn More about COVE and Visual Literacy

Convergence Training: Yeah, a similar example.

Alright, this is fascinating and I appreciate your time. I wonder if, for people out there who would like to learn more about how to contact you or to contact COVE or to learn more about the project, what can they do, who do they need to contact, and where can they do it?

Doug Pontsler: We would love you to come to our website. And our website, we have some good information about what visual literacy is all about, how it applies, we have some reference materials there as well, and we have a workshop schedule. If you’re interested in attending a workshop, we have those scheduled through the first half of 2019.

We’d love to have dialogue with you in any form you’d like to.

Convergence Training: Great. And that workshop you talked about–is that an in-person, brick-and-mortar workshop that occurs in Toledo?

Doug Pontsler: It is. It’s a great experience. We do workshops in museums, most of which are held at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is one of the finest museums in the country.

Our core workshop is called Foundations, and it’s a two-day workshop. Over that two-day period, we spend roughly a third of our time or so in the classroom and the balance of that time out in the galleries of the museum, doing exercises that use the objects of art that educate us on the aspects of visual literacy and how we can practice and become more proficient and be able to look at something, really see what’s there, and be able to interpret in a more accurate way what that actually means.

Convergence Training: Well, cool. I would love to go and I hope to do so at some point. I encourage anyone who’s listening to try to make it. Toledo’s a great town, not too far from my hometown of Detroit, right there by Lake Erie, easy to miss but a cool place to visit.

And Doug, I originally learned about your project from a white paper put out by the Campbell Institute. And if I’m correct, the National Safety Council recently held their annual safety congress, and I THINK maybe you had just released an updated version of that what paper–is that true?

Doug Pontsler: Yeah, that’s correct. We had been in partnership with the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council really since the inception of this idea. I was a very active National Safety Council member, I chaired the Campbell Institute up until this last Congress and was a board member of the NSC as well up until this last Congress, and the National Safety Council had been following pretty closely this evolution of visual literacy and its application to safety. And it’s actually the Campbell Institute that’s been publishing these white papers.

There have been two. One that explains what it’s all about and why we’re interested in it, and a second one an update on some work that’s under way to begin to begin to explain the impact both qualitatively and quantitatively, and this is a study that will go on for the next several years.

Side note: Here are the two papers Doug just mentioned:

Convergence Training: OK, cool.

Alright, so thanks for sharing your information. Is there a question I should have asked but didn’t, or anything else you’d like to tell people about visual literacy and occupational safety or COVE or your project?

Doug Pontsler: I would just encourage everyone to investigate what it’s about.

As I said at the beginning, it really goes back to that opening premise of how important safety is and the work we do, and identifying things we can do to make the workplace safer for people and what people can do to make the workplace safer for themselves. And for how important that is, we really spend no time training people on how to be more effective with how they see things.

And so it makes a lot of sense that if we can upskill ourselves and our teams in visual literacy, the work that we’re going to be able to do is going to be more effectively than it might be today.

And then the second thing is that visual literacy shouldn’t stop at the gate or street where we enter the workplace. We’re 8 or 9 times more likely to be injured at home than we are are at the workplace. These are the same visual literacy skills we need to work safely at home, in our basements or garages or stairways, just as we do at the workplace.

So visual literacy for safety really is a 24/7 kind of thing.

Convergence Training: Two good points. I especially like the point that it’s important to learn visual literacy for hazard identification, and in particular, in regards to the whole concept of hazard ID, people always tell you it’s important to train workers how to identify hazards, but you don’t see as much about how to do it. So this is a great contribution.

Doug Pontsler: Yeah. We’re excited about the work we’re doing.

Convergence Training: Rightly so. Well thanks again to Doug, to everyone out there, thanks for listening in and we hope you enjoyed it.

If you’re watching this in a video form, know that I will type up the transcript and create an article form as well, as you can read it if you wish at the Convergence Training blog as well, so it will be in two formats out there.

We want to thank Doug and COVE for their time and expertise and for sharing about this project. Once again, this is Doug Pontsler, Chairman and Managing Director, with the Center of Visual Expertise.


Conclusion: Improving Visual Literacy Can Increase Occupational Safety

We hope you enjoyed this interesting discussion on visual literacy for safety. Let us know if you have any additional questions and don’t be afraid to reach out to Doug and COVE to learn more.

For even more information on this topic, check out the following links Doug sent to us:

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