The Campbell Institute

The Campbell Institute: Visual literacy

The Campbell Institute

At any given moment, you are seeing only 10 percent of what you think you are.

While you might perceive that you are seeing the world in front of you exactly as it is, research has shown that you are only seeing a small fraction of that reality. The rest is filled in by your brain, drawing on memory and previous experience. In the best cases, we call this application of memory “intuition,” but in most cases it manifests negatively as “bias.”

How many times, even with rigorous safety programs, are you left scratching your head at an incident report, wondering how someone failed to “see” what was right in front of them?

In those instances, either the person was not taking the time to see the missing 90 percent, or they were acting on a previous experience that did not result in harm. In this way, bias hurts both people and the bottom line.

What if there was a way – a systematic approach – that you could leverage to help people see more than 10 percent and to neutralize their biases?

More intriguing still, what if the methodology for doing so was borrowed from art history and adapted to health and safety applications by an art museum?

“You might consider it to be a bit unusual to think about art and safety in the same conversation,” said Doug Pontsler, vice president of operations sustainability and EHS at Owens Corning in Toledo, OH, “but when we realized that a more rigorous approach to ‘learning to see’ borrowed from the art world might help us improve our ability to observe the hazards that are often right in front of us, we thought it was worth exploration.”

Fortunately, a global leader in teaching the ability to see (a concept also called “visual literacy”) was right in Pontsler’s backyard. He began working with the Toledo Museum of Art to adapt the museum’s curriculum and integrate it into Owens Corning’s global safety training program.

As Mike Deetsch, Emma Leah Bippus director of education at the Toledo Museum of Art, explained about the experience, “We shared with the team at Owens Corning that we often look past things that are familiar to us because we believe we already know what they look like.

“We teach people to slow down, look deeply, and see things they may have missed before. We teach that conclusions that we might draw from only having part of the picture could be wrong, and getting the whole story is important to fully understanding any situation. It is these lessons and many more that are beginning to influence how organizations train their team members to identify hazards and take action to resolve them.”

As demonstrated by the initial work undertaken by Owens Corning and the Toledo Museum of Art, the concept of visual literacy resonates well beyond hazard identification.

It can potentially also offer insight into causal analysis and incident investigation processes, as well as creating a shared language within a team, facility or organization.

To further investigate the role of visual literacy in safety, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council have partnered to assess the impact of the museum’s “Visual Literacy” curriculum on injury outcomes in a forthcoming study.

In addition, the Campbell Institute will host a series of sessions at the 2016 NSC Congress & Expo in Anaheim, CA, to discuss the concept and implications of visual literacy on safety.

In the meantime, keep your eyes open – literally!

As Campbell Institute Director John Dony noted, “We must be open to concepts from outside our fields to move the needle in our organizations. 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.”

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Adam Levine, Ph.D., is the associate director and associate curator of ancient art at the Toledo Museum of Art. Levine received doctorate and master’s degrees in art history from the University of Oxford; and bachelor’s degrees in art history, anthropology, and mathematics and social sciences from Dartmouth College.


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