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.