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National Safety Month: Watch out! (And you might get what you’re after, which is safety)

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During the National Safety Council’s NATIONAL SAFETY MONTH, we’ll be taking a look at each week’s NSC-designated focus through a construction site lens. This is Hazard Recognition Week.

To kick off National Safety month, the National Safety Council asks us (in the royal sense, not TSCTA specifically, though we’re ever-vigilant) to focus on those most foundational aspects of good safety sense: hazard awareness and mitigation.

Hazards aren’t everywhere, but if you know where to look, you’ll find serious dangers you may never knew existed.

That’s why many safety experts recommend changing the way you “see” safety, which can be enhanced through the concept of visual literacy. Visual literacy focuses on “de-noising,” or decluttering, the rapid and ever-escalating input from the modern world by reframing “how” to see things.

According to a Safety & Health piece on the subject, organizations like the Toledo Museum of Art (and their Center of Visual Expertise [COVE]) use standard techniques in art analysis, such as focusing on the lines, shapes, colors, textures of a given object and the space occupied by it.

They also use these two photos of a cheetah to illustrate the necessity of a focus on these aspects:

Photos courtesy of the Center for Visual Expertise (COVE)

When viewers adopt the techniques, it helps them differentiate objects as well as their purpose/meaning/use from each other, and then use that information for practical assessments about the object’s fitness for a given space.

In other words, students of visual literacy learn to contextualize what they are seeing and act accordingly.

For those on the outside looking in, some of the more routine manifestations of the technique may seem obvious and unnecessary. Teaching someone to be extra alert for an errant broom in a potentially hazardous position is not a more efficient use of time than making sure everyone knows that they should not leave things lying on the floor. But what separates visual literacy from basic safety sense is that it functions as a “cradle to grave” technique for lifelong site safety on a micro and macro level.

Being able to better recognize when something is out of place may prevent workers from leaving those things out of place to begin with and better prepares them for the inevitable day when someone else makes the mistake they avoided. And, even more than that, it also allows them – because their brain is no longer so cluttered from living in a world where they are less acutely aware of the hazards around them (and, as such, unsure how to avoid them) – to find more minute issues that can, if left unchecked, cumulatively lead to massive problems for individuals or entire job sites.

Because our brain more often than not “fills in the blanks,” – and does so, according to COVE, at a rate of as much as 90% — much of what you are thinking you are seeing may be your brain recreating the space you are in to the best of its recollection. What visual literacy does is provide awareness of this natural tendency and provides the tools to avoid the worst-case consequences of it, should something go wrong. 

And that’s just good safety sense, whether you’re on a construction site or a safari just a bit too close to a cheetah.