In our daily lives we are surrounded by visual messaging; from the traffic signs we see on the commute to work, the billboard ads we look at while waiting at the bus stop or on the train station platform and the YouTube videos on our laptop. From our first scroll on our phone over breakfast to the late-night TV show we watch before bedtime, our senses are continually bombarded with visual content and we are constantly inputting, analysing and storing the visual information we consume.
The human brain is hard-wired for visual processing. In fact, up to half of our cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for many sensory, motor and cognitive functions including memory and association, is involved in making sense of what we see.
So when it comes to safety in our workplace why should we choose visuals?
1. Visuals make sense
Most of our information input comes through our eyes. According to Elaine N. Marieb and Katja Hoehn, authors of Human Anatomy & Physiology (2007), more than 70% of the human body’s sensory receptors are in our eyes. So it makes sense then, when critical content needs to be quickly and effectively understood, communicated and implemented that it should be in a visual format.
2. Visuals are faster
We can assess a visual setting in less than 1/10th of a second. An image or graphic can convey meaning up to 60,000 times faster than reading text alone. It follows that in high-risk situations and environments where critical safety information needs to be communicated quickly and effectively, visual content is king.
3. Visuals improve memory
Our brains remember in pictures. If we hear a piece of information, it’s likely that after three days we’ll struggle to recall it, and may only retain 10% of that content. But if an image is added to the information, we will recall up to 65% of it, according to John Medina in his book Brain Rules. Other studies have found that combining visual information with action helps us to retain up to 80% of information.
Using visuals with narrative and storytelling techniques to convey critical safety material boosts memory retention so it makes sense then to adopt a visual safety management strategy for your teams.
4. Visuals enhance learning
We’ve learned that up to half of our cerebral cortex is responsible for visual processing. According to visual literacy expert, Dr. Lynell Burmark, information in textual formats such as words, concepts or ideas needs to be ‘hooked’ onto an image to be processed and stored in our long-term memory.
Using the power of visuals such as illustrated comics and videos in e-learning and online safety training modules helps to encourage and reinforce independent learning.
5. Visuals are non-verbal
Non-verbal communication plays a key role in how we convey meaning and information to others and in fact, the majority of human communication is non-verbal - estimated from 50% to 70%. When we read a comic or watch a video, we assess and interpret - often subconsciously - the story from the non-verbal communication between the characters by their eye contact, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and gestures.
When we’re planning a presentation for work or a product showcase for a client we tend to focus on the words. However, the words we use are not as important as how we deliver the message. By focusing only on the words we miss the opportunity to be more persuasive by using non-verbal communication.
Using visuals in safety communication whether at an in-person event or in a print, digital or animated format clarifies meaning, enhances impact and reinforces the message.
6. Visuals remove barriers
As industry becomes increasingly global, growing companies face challenges with communicating health and safety messaging across multilingual workforces. Using universally recognisable symbols and facial expressions such as a red sign for danger and a thumbs-up emoji in our communication materials helps to transcend language, cultural and literacy barriers.
Businesses with a poor health and safety record face consequences including accidents and fatalities, legal and compensation claims, higher insurance premiums, reduced profitability and productivity, and damage to workplace morale and company reputation.
Therefore, it is essential that health and safety communication is adapted to serve the needs of the entire workforce for swift and effective understanding and implementation. Overcoming language and literacy barriers by putting visual safety systems in place will help your company to thrive.
7. Visuals are expected
With the evolution of the internet and social media, the demand for visual communication has never been greater. Studies show that we consume more visual content - images, infographics and video - than ever before. That’s why video is the preferred medium used by content marketers. Think of the rising popularity of image-sharing platform, Instagram, and video-based TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube. Even older social media sites are evolving and introducing more ways to share images and videos: one example is Facebook Live where users can livestream events or performances from their phone or laptop to their friends or followers.
To remain competitive in a rapidly moving marketplace, businesses need to keep pace with consumer trends: if visuals are pervasive in our personal lives then we expect to see them in our workplaces. The risks of not adapting are too great: especially when it comes to health and safety.
8. Visuals simply work better
Visuals are a proven way to convey critical safety information. We use the power of visuals to communicate because we know it works. Think of the road traffic signs you see on your drive to work. These signs use a combination of symbols, letters and numbers to guide us to our destination and to keep us informed of potential safety hazards such as roadworks, traffic tailbacks, road conditions etc along the route. We recognise and respond to these universally-understood symbols and visual cues to avoid accidents when we travel.
In a similar way, airplane safety cards convey critical information using illustrations and symbols with minimal words. These simple laminated cards are a key part of every airline’s safety protocol, reinforcing the message delivered at the start of each flight by the cabin crew.
The message is clear
So, next time you pick up your phone, venture out and about in the town or city where you live, take the time to notice how you respond to the visual communication you consume: a red warning traffic sign, a billboard ad featuring the logo of your favourite sports brand, a funny comic in a newspaper or the latest viral meme. Whatever the communication method, the message is clear: safety visuals work.
So when designing your health and safety strategy with the goal of improving safety in your workplace consider how visual safety tools can be best employed to enhance your critical safety messaging, reduce accidents and, ultimately, save lives.
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