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The art of spotting hazards in the workplace

Art of spotting hazards

NEW ORLEANS — After engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. educated its employees at its plant in Jamestown, New York, on interpretation techniques used by those who study fine art, the workers were able to spot 2,174 hazards that had gone unnoticed, according to an expert now providing “visual literary” training to safety professionals nationwide.

It’s not surprising, nor is it an indication that Cummins’ program was subpar, Colin Duncan, managing director of the Toledo, Ohio-based Center of Visual Expertise, told attendees at the Volunteer Protection Program Participants Association’s Safety +, Integrated Safety & Health Management Systems Symposium in New Orleans on Friday.

It’s human nature, in that humans — by design — only see fractions of what is in front of them, said Mr. Duncan. Put a worker on “autopilot” in the same spot and on the same task every day and it’s even less, he added.

“We are not never good at spotting things,” he said, going through a series of slides that aimed to show attendees what can go unnoticed, such as a panther in the jungle or the way the background in a car commercial changes. “Have we got an inbuilt problem in our workplace that can trick people? Even the trained eye can miss stuff.”

The Center of Visual Expertise was established at the Art Museum of Toledo after a museum board member — an executive at roofing materials manufacturer Owens Corning —noticed how the museum’s training programs in understanding the visual arts could apply to workplace safety and, more specifically, hazard identification, Mr. Duncan said.

“Every day we ask people to perform tasks that require seeing,” he said. “We train them extensively, we train them in the classroom, we train them on the job. How many of you have been trained to see? Typically that happens when you study art.”

“Visual literacy is how people read visual information; how do they interpret it? How do they communicate it to others?” he said. “How many times was it not what someone saw but how they interpreted it?”

The training method was developed by taking common terms and skills in art interpretation focusing on such elements as line, shape, texture and space and applying them to hazard identification in the workplace, according to Mr. Duncan, whose background is in safety.

After helping attendees study a classic painting, showing them how to look at the elements in the photo from the perimeter to the center — an art school technique that goes against traditional viewing from the center out — Mr. Duncan showed attendees staged work scenes, and asked them to identify hazards using that technique. Missing hardhats, the placement of a forklift and other issues made the list.

“How many times on the periphery can people miss things?,” he said. “You can use (this technique) to help people break down images.”

The other techniques included looking for contrasts, turning the image upside down, repeatedly viewing the image and explaining — all to give a worker a different way to examine a scene and look for hazards, he said.

“It’s fascinating the things they will see that they wouldn’t normally see (with this technique),” he said. “We disrupt the brain.”

For the Cummins plant, the technique helped workers identify almost two dozen safety issues, including fall hazards — from 230 spotted before visual literacy training to 660 — and 330 more machine hazards, according to a chart provided by Mr. Duncan.



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