Safety Leader

The Art of Safety: Visual literacy training offers a new method for hazard identification

The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David

Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art
Published On
Feb 14, 2022

We’ve probably all torn the house apart trying to find our car keys, only to look down and realize they’ve been on the kitchen counter all along. Not being able to recognize the keys from their surroundings might make us late for an appointment—but not being able to recognize an overhanging beam or stretch of icy pavement could lead to serious injury or death on a construction site. A new addition to some companies’ safety training efforts uses a common approach to visual arts education to help safety managers and workers on the job identify such hazards before injuries occur.

Visual literacy, a concept frequently used in art history classes, teaches students to look at artwork more critically by breaking it down into the visual elements of color, line, shape, space and texture. Students are taught to step back from the work and take time to study each element independent of the others to get a better understanding of an artist’s technique. The education wing of the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art has formalized this training in a curriculum it calls “The Art of Seeing Art,” which it has incorporated into classes, workshops and tours.

Working with safety professionals from leading corporations in the Toledo area, the museum also has established the Center of Visual Expertise (COVE), a separate business unit focused on translating their art education approach into a series of training programs for corporate safety officers and job-site personnel at all levels.

Doug Pontsler, COVE’s chairman and managing director, is one of the first in the safety industry to recognize how this connection could be made. He was formerly the vice president for environmental health and safety (EHS) and operations sustainability for Owens Corning, headquartered in Toledo, which is a big TMA supporter. At the urging of museum director Adam Levine, Pontsler and several of his staff members went through visual literacy training. This led to conversations regarding how the methodology could be used to boost hazard identification programs at job sites and on manufacturing floors.

“We walk by something and we don’t see it, and then an incident occurs—it’s the incident that shows us we had something we needed to pay attention to,” Pontsler said, adding that he and his staff were struck by this realization. “We took the ‘aha’ we had and integrated it into our training programs. That was a collaborative effort between the people who are experts in visual literacy and people who are experts on how things happen on the shop floor.”

Pontsler began talking up Owens Corning’s experience and broader visual literacy concepts to colleagues at the National Safety Council, where he’s served on the board of directors and as chairman of its EHS-focused Campbell Institute.

“Sure enough, companies got interested,” he said, adding that then TMA began offering visual literacy sessions at various national safety conferences. After he retired from Owens Corning in 2018, TMA recruited Pontsler to head up COVE, which the museum created as a subsidiary business that year.

COVE now has several tiers of training available, including an intensive two-day program for corporate leadership and the company’s in-house trainers, and two-hour modules for job-site and shop-floor foremen and subcontractors. Most of the two-day training initially took place at TMA or the Indianapolis Museum of Art, though the group also has held programs for Disney at EPCOT and in Bentonville, Ark., home to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Walmart’s headquarters. Now, Pontsler said, with COVID-19 in mind, these courses have transitioned into hybrid offerings with a mix of online and in-person approaches.

“People that work in industry can be initially intimidated a bit about coming into an art museum—they quickly realize that it’s interesting and fun, and it’s different from basic safety training,” Pontsler said. “At root, we’re talking about individual skills and capabilities. If we can just slow down and apply discipline, we can see and understand more and be able to take impactful action.”

Scott Cole, business unit environmental health and safety director for The Lathrop Co., a Toledo-based subsidiary of Turner Construction Co., is an advocate for COVE’s approach to hazard identification, having led its implementation during the construction of a theater addition to the city’s Imagination Station children’s museum. This was a pilot venture for COVE and Lathrop, selected for its 12- to 15-month duration and a level of complexity that included demolition, below-grade foundation work, steel erection, concrete, electrical and work activity adjacent to a busy downtown street.

“You’re always looking for new and innovative ways to bolster your existing safety programs,” Cole said of Lathrop’s interest in piloting COVE’s visual literacy training to aid in hazard identification and incident investigations. “This idea of learning to see hazards just isn’t taught. If you’re able to add this tool, you’re not changing your program, you’re bolstering it. You’re identifying problems before they occur, which, as a safety professional, you’re always doing.”

The visual literacy implementation began with Cole and the rest of the project team going through COVE’s two-day Foundations of Visual Literacy workshop, during which attendees collaborated with COVE about how to pass this training along to workers in the field. Subcontractor foremen were identified as key to this effort’s success, so a two-hour module was developed for those building team members and presented in waves, based on what activity was upcoming on the construction schedule. Finally, a 15-minute addition was made to worker-orientation safety training to provide the basics on how to see things that normally disappear into the background.

One of the biggest takeaways for Cole after his two days of training was the way each participant brought unique viewpoints to the paintings and sculptures that formed the basis for the class.

“There were definite points during the training when you could see, collaboratively as a group, all the experiences and perspectives different people brought to the table,” he said, noting the power this variety of points of view could provide on a job site where workers have been introduced to ideas such as line, perspective, color and foreground/background.

“You’re more apt to find things than you would otherwise when you’re using those same 10 people out in the field,” Cole said. “I’ve got all these different people on my projects—one isn’t wrong or right. But the ability to have all those insights—it forces you to look at things with different perspectives. You’re seeing more than what you’d otherwise see.”

The training also changed how Cole looks at a job site. As a safety professional with years of experience, he previously walked through such locations with a checklist in his head of what he should be looking for.

“It forces me to take that pause to look at the big picture before I continue to walk forward,” to perhaps recognize a change in color or contrast that could indicate, say, an icy or oily slip hazard. “It adds to your ability to be more systematic in the way you’re identifying hazards—it helps me go above and beyond the normal things I’d always looked for,” he said.

In a case study on this project developed by COVE, a Lathrop project manager described how visual literacy training helped him pick out a significant hazard that he might otherwise have missed after the demolition of an overhead walkway resulted in a large amount of glass ending up on the street below. Looking at post sweep-up conditions, the project manager had initially thought his clean-up crew had completed their work. Then he walked to the other end of the street to look back at the demolition site. From that perspective, with a different daylight exposure, it was evident that a significant amount of glass remained, which the crew then cleaned up.

The project wrapped up in 2020 with zero incidents and zero injuries, a success for any construction project. Cole noted the difficulty in directly attributing this perfect safety record to visual literacy training, especially as Lathrop already has a robust safety program. However, there is some actual quantitative data to point to: the company reported that through weekly visual literacy exercises with subcontractor foremen, an estimated 220 additional potential safety hazards were reported, with 44 of those leading to actual corrections.

“We were able to find 44 significant or incident hazards before they became something that raised a hazard,” Cole said.

Lathrop has since partially implemented the training on one other project, but coronavirus-related social-distancing requirements have made full implementation difficult.

“We certainly plan to continue to pursue visual literacy and how we can use it as a tool in future projects,” Cole said. The experience of Cole and his project team fits well with the goals Pontsler has for this program. The visual literacy program helped broaden the capacity of Lathrop’s already strong safety program.

“We can be intellectually expert at anything, but if we can walk the workplace and not see gaps, then the knowledge is wasted in terms of potential outcomes,” Cole said. “I think a lot of the safety focus for organizations that are truly committed, they’ve done a lot of fundamentals already. But many of the solutions come outside of the traditional safety education process. Visual literacy is just one more thing that’s part of a bigger toolbox that directly applies to safety.”

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

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