Seeing the Big Picture: Identify Hazards and Assess Risk

Seeing the Big Picture: Identify Hazards and Assess Risk

How safety and health professionals can scope out the big picture of workplace hazards and assess their risks through Visual Literacy practices.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: You are a safety and health professional going where no professional has gone before. You’ve been hired by a metal fabricating plant in the Midwest. It is family-owned with approximately 300 employees, and you will be its first full-time occupational safety and health professional.

Where do you start? You’re staring at a blank slate. The owner, who knows little about workplace safety and health beyond doing what’s needed to stay out of trouble with OSHA, has given you carte blanche–within a reasonable budget—to do what you see as necessary to prevent injuries. Common injuries in the plant result from handling materials, poor lifting, exposure to vibrations, misusing hand tools, flying shards and sparks, welding burns and exposure to gases, and hand and finger cuts from machinery. Noise, temperature extremes, in-plant vehicles and poor lighting and housekeeping are also hazards that workers face.

To get your fledgling prevention program off the ground, you could start with a safety mission statement. Analyze incident records and set goals. Draw up core safety rules and procedures, form a safety steering committee, schedule regular safety meetings and training.

Start with Situational Awareness

Before getting tactical, an OSH professional should see the big picture in the plant. You need a sense of context. You need situational awareness. What are the hazards? Where are the hazards? Why do they exist? What is the plant’s overall risk profile?

Risk assessments have evolved, but the process is often incomplete. This is due to our failure to identify hazards in our workplace in an objective way. If we don't see the hazard to begin with, our ability to assess risk and mitigate risk is lost.

Identifying hazards begins by seeing the complete picture in the plant. What is the plant’s overall risk profile? What is the culture as it relates to safety and health? How is work really done, particularly when supervisors aren’t present?

Risk assessment can begin by compiling a hazard inventory. Some obvious hazards will jump off the page of injury reports. But reviewing past records, lagging indicators of safety performance, on a computer screen or leafing through binders, is desk-bound duty, and only part of seeing the whole picture.

The Hazard Identification Process

We can engage the participation of supervisors, machinists, welders, material handlers and vehicle operators to conduct an extensive, detailed plant walk around or audit to identify hazards and build our inventory. This is a hazard identification probe into every nook and cranny of the plant. But during the walk around or hazard hunt, we need to be cognizant of an important truth: we don't see as well as we think we do. The reasons include the fast pace in which we operate, and the scientific fact that seeing is actually our brain at work interpreting the stimuli we collect. We actually see as little as 10 percent of what we think we are seeing, up to 90 percent is filled in by our brain and what we expect to see. This limits our ability to truly see and observe hazards.

Another limitation is what we expect to see is often skewed by our visual biases. These biases cause us to attempt to see hazards while wearing blinders.

We must be aware that our observations can be restricted or distorted by visual blind spots. Filters that detract from the cold, hard facts about the hazards in our workplace. The reality on the ground.

*Perhaps we rely too much on the initial information collected by reviewing incident records. We can become attached or anchored to it. This is called anchoring bias.

*We might rely too heavily on our own past embedded, vivid experiences to analyze the plant environment. This is representative bias.

*If we make assumptions, jump to conclusions, based on what we have seen before, this bias is known as pre-cognitive commitment.

The good news is there are solutions—tools and techniques—that we can employ that helps us see more completely with more accurate interpretation.

Visual Literacy

Becoming more visually literate gives us the opportunity to develop more complete hazard inventories and more comprehensive mitigation actions.

Visual Literacy improves our ability to truly see hazards with more depth, breadth and penetrating concentration. We slow down, even just a bit, to take the time to first look, observe more closely, and see with newfound clarity. We do this objectively, without bias and with an open mind. Employing critical thinking skills is key: accurate descriptions, thoughtful analysis, granular interpretations and evaluations, and the ability to communicate what we have discerned and subsequent action plans to mitigate hazardous conditions.

Visual literacy skills can be taught to a hazard identification team composed of the men and women doing the work, supervisors and senior leaders. We need to engage the frontline especially, tap into their experience and perceptions. Visual literacy is a means to develop employee “talent” through participation in assessments, improving observation and hazard recognition skills and by creating opportunities to assess the risk posed by hazards. We also strengthen their critical thinking skills.

What's the Hazard? What’s a Risk?

Before hazard identification processes begins, it is important to distinguish between a hazard and a risk.

A hazard represents a potential harmful exposure to a physical condition, an equipment deficiency, an environmental condition, insufficient work process safety controls, potentially dangerous behaviors and organizational pressures and stresses that can compromise safety and cause rushing, shortcuts and fatigue, for example.

A risk is determined by whether a hazard will actually cause harm. How probable is exposure to the hazard? How severe could a resulting injury be? How frequently is a worker exposed to the hazard? Hazards first must be identified and inventoried before risks can be assessed, scored and prioritized, creating a work environment’s risk profile.

Visual literacy uncovers hazards both obvious and hidden. It is a concept from art education. It’s important for employees to develop and deploy visually literate competencies because they are bombarded by visual stimuli every day in today’s complex, fast-paced, technologically-driven workplace.

In manufacturing, employees are routinely exposed to machinery of different ages, makes, operations and capacities; energized equipment and electrical components such as wiring, cords and conductors; material handling lines and vehicles; hazardous materials; walking/working surfaces of different gradients and textures; housekeeping storage areas and welding, cutting and brazing work.

Error Traps

Workers become habituated to these hazards. They see machinery, equipment, materials, work tasks and the behaviors of co-workers so often, every day, at times they will not see a hazard right in front of them. Remember, we see as little as 10 percent of what we think we are seeing. This results in incomplete, inaccurate and at times superficial hazard identification activities. We need to be conscious of this “brain trick” before searching out hazards. It’s also useful to use visual literacy elements from art education. Make note of colors, lines, shapes, spaces and texture to deconstruct a task or a work environment.

Stress, time pressure, poor communication and performing first time or infrequent hazard identification efforts can result in missing hazards and not really seeing the reality of the work. To de-stress an assessment team, make the hazard hunt fun like a game. Who can find the most hazards? Who does the best job describing the hazards they find? To ease the time pressure, it is important to slow down, even for a few seconds, to make more precise observations.

If we fail to see the hazards present, the resulting hazard inventory can be dangerously misleading. Critical precursors to serious injuries and fatalities can be missed, such as:

*Work with electricity and energized equipment

*Work pinched between in the line of fire and release of significant mass or energy

*Driving a vehicle

*Work at elevation

*Work with barriers, machine guards

*Welding flash potential

*Work under a suspended load

Show Senior Leaders the Big Picture

Hazard identification, followed by risk assessment, is the first step to see the whole picture of safety and health in any work environment. Once hazards are inventoried, a plant risk profile is created. This is important information to communicate to senior leaders. We present them with 1) a modern, risk-centric safety and health management system, 2) risk priorities and 3) mitigation strategies. Challenge yourself to use innovative tools and techniques to help you see your work environment more completely. The result: more accurate identification of hazards and assessment of risks creating a safer workplace.

This article originally appeared in the May 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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