If you're a parent of an infant or young child, you likely spend a great deal of your time trying to stay five steps ahead of the current situation, looking for danger around every corner, and trying very hard to steer your child safely through every moment. This is a great example of visual literacy.

But in the workplace, or even in other areas of adult life, like driving a car, this conscious hyper-awareness of danger is often ignored, or eclipsed by other priorities, like deadlines.

What Is Visual Literacy?

Consciously identifying dangers and remaining aware of them form part of a concept called visual literacy.

A whitepaper by the Campbell Institute states that “being more visually literate allows individuals to perceive and understand more about their work environment, enabling them to see hazards and imagine the potential consequences that can result from those hazards.”

It might seem surprising to need a school of study on this topic, but safety awareness on a worksite is not a constant thing. For a start, many workers might not have the experience or knowledge to recognize a dangerous situation. Some dangers are also not immediately obvious – electric shock hazards, for example. Furthermore, people can become willfully blind to obvious danger, choosing instead to operate in dangerous situations in order to save time or money, because they are under pressure, or do not see the need to make things safer.

(Learn more in Safety and Overconfidence.)

Visual literacy must be consciously learned and then consciously applied. It involves actively reading a situation for potential hazards, rather than merely noticing them. Why? Because even people eventually become “blind” to what they see if it does not change sufficiently and regularly.

Take school buses as an example. In North America, in 1939, school buses started to be colored yellow after it was determined that yellow was the most noticeable of all the colors. Then, later, in many municipalities, flashing red lights were added. A little later, physical stop signs were added to the passenger door side. Then, more recently, a flashing white strobe light was added to the roof.

Why all these additions? They were each put in place to add something new to the visual scenario that helps attract the attention of drivers. A big yellow bus by itself is no longer enough. Ongoing human perception depends greatly on change. Things must move or change in order to be correctly processed by the brain.

(Find out How to Master the Science of Sign Visibility.)

Becoming Conscious of Danger

Vision itself is a mostly passive activity. In day-to-day working life, we see what we see, but we don't actively search for danger. Nor do we necessarily know what to look for.

This is why visual literacy is needed. In a workplace, there are always dangers, but unless a person is trained to read the entire visual scenario, those dangers can go unnoticed until it is too late. As the Campbell Report states, “when the potential reward or benefit of an action is high (in terms of time saved, for example), then workers tend to perceive the situation as lower in risk.”

For people working at heights, there can be a strong temptation to jump between two platforms without tying off. The brain envisions the final desired goal (landing safely) but does not actively read the visual scenario.

(Learn How to Choose Your Fall Protection Anchorage.)

Similarly, a healthcare worker might absently tear a glove or overlook the potential for personal injury due to the urgency of a medical situation. This can happen in any industry, even when a thorough job hazard analysis has been completed and shared.

Can Art Make Us Safer?

Most of us don't think of art when we think about safety, but there might be a connection between the two.

In developing its visual literacy program, the Campbell Institute worked closely with the Toledo Museum of Art. After all, one of the most important elements of understanding visual arts is to know what to look for. A casual observer might just “see” a painting or sculpture and form an opinion, but an educated observer is trained to actively look at the artwork, scanning its lines and construction, color palette, artist’s style, taking note of what is there and even what is not there.

It makes sense, then, for a health and safety organization to join forces with an art organization to place greater focus on conscious visual awareness in the workplace.

Here's how the Toledo Museum of Art did it. They worked with some local industry partners to develop a formalized visual literacy program that includes a visual vocabulary and “breaks down visual assessment of an area in key types of hazards and trains employees on those specific hazards, one at a time.” They were successful in teaching employees to understand the importance of assessing a visual field of view more critically in order to perceive potential dangers before they happened. This allowed for an improved method of training and long-term deployment.

Although the visual literacy program is still a wok in progress, it is evident that as time pressures get greater and the speed of industry increases, it will become critical to make the act of consciously reading a workplace for danger a trained and reinforced procedure.