Visual Literacy in Health and Safety

According to the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council, at any point we are seeing only ten percent of what we perceive. You may think you are seeing the world accurately, but research shows that we are only capable of seeing approximately ten percent of that reality. Why? Because our brain works in fractions, meaning that we see some of what is actually in front of us, and we fill in the rest based on experiences and memories. If you have ever taken an art class, you know that the best way to accomplish a still-life painting is to avoid looking at your work while painting. That’s because, when we look down, we are filling in the details based on memory. Unfortunately, memories, particularly when it comes to important details, are never completely correct.

According to Adam Levine, the associate director and curator of ancient art at the Toledo Museum of Art, the other 90 percent of what we see is filled in by our own brains, drawing on past experiences and memories. He states, “In the best cases, we call this application of memory ‘intuition,’ but in most cases, it manifests negatively as ‘bias.’”

How does this relate to safety? When we can’t see what is directly in front of us, we can’t make safe decisions effectively. Even with stringent safety programs, people often fail to see what is directly in front of them, resulting in a safety incident. Levine suggests that in many of these incidents, workers either fail to take the time to see the other 90 percent, or act out of habit or based on a previous experience that didn’t result in harm. This can greatly impact the safety of workers and your bottom line.

Levine poses the question, “What if there was a way—a systematic approach—that you could leverage to help people see more than ten percent and to neutralize their biases?” Just as I suspected, he relates this to art, claiming that the methodology for doing so was borrowed from art history and applied to health and safety. According to Doug Pontsler, the vice president of operations sustainability and EHS at Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio, it may seem strange to relate art history to safety, but when you look at the rigorous approach to “learning to see” from the art world, there is a correlation that may help us to improve our ability to observe daily hazards accurately.

In the art world, teaching the ability to see things correctly is referred to as “visual literacy.” Pontsler met with a global leader in teaching visual literacy to discover methods of applying this concept to safety. He started working with the Toledo Museum of Art to modify the museum’s curriculum, effectively integrating it into Owens Corning’s global safety training program. The director of education at the Toledo Museum of Art explains, “We shared with the team at Owens Corning’s that we often look past things that are familiar to us because we believe we already know what they look like.”

The curriculum at the Toledo Museum of Art teaches people to slow down and take the time to look deeply. This teaches students to see things they may have missed before. It’s important to get the whole story to fully understand any situation because drawing conclusions can lead to a litany of mistakes. These are the lessons they are integrating into Owens Corning’s safety curriculum. They believe that these ideas are beginning to influence the training methods organizations use to identify hazards and act to resolve them.

Furthermore, the idea of visual literacy goes beyond hazard identification. According to Mr. Levine, it can offer insight into casual analysis and incident investigation, along with creating a shared language within a team, facility, or entire organization.

Currently, the Toledo Museum of Art and Campbell Institute at the Nation Safety Council are conducting further investigations into visual literacy for health and safety. They have partnered together to assess the impact of visual literacy on injury outcomes in an upcoming study. The Campbell Institute recently hosted a series of sessions at the 2016 NSC Congress and Expo in Anaheim, California, discussing the “concept and implications of visual literacy on safety” (Levine).

Campbell Institute Director John Dony noted that it’s important to take concepts from other industries and fields and apply them to health and safety. Because, as he explains, “Whether it’s visual literacy or big data, when it comes to saving lives we can’t afford to let a good idea go to waste.” We are waiting patiently to see what they discover!

In the meantime, there are several things you can do to improve safety in the workplace. Slips, trips, and falls from height account for most general industry accidents today. Most of these incidents could have been prevented. Statistics show that the majority (66%) of falls happen on the same level resulting from slips and trips. The remaining 34% are falls from a height. There are a lot of steps facilities can—and should—take to improve worker safety and reduce the number of workplace falls. Using a daily safety checklist to ensure workers know exactly what to look for before and during each shift is a critical component to reducing workplace injuries and fatalities. Ensure at-height workers are always using the proper fall protection for their application and that they are using it correctly. Implement appropriate safety training programs, and remind employees to take their time and pay close attention to where they are going. This may help workers to see hazards before they become incidents.


1. Levine, Adam, “Visual Literacy”, Safety & Health Magazine, October 2016, Page 116.
2. The Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council

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Kristina Harman

Senior Technical Writer |
Kristina Harman was formerly a senior technical writer and content manager for Rigid Lifelines, a division of Spanco, Inc. Kristina has twelve years of experience in content development, technical communications, and copyediting. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in English from Towson University and a Master of Education Certification in English from Johns Hopkins University. She is a member of the Society for Technical Communication and the American Medical Writers Association.