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  • Writer's picturePrasanna Adhikari

Why is visual training for construction safety more effective?

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Our visual system is fascinating. To understand what I mean, start by answering a few questions about your memory, starting with your childhood. Do you remember the faces of your friends? How well do you remember their names? I still remember the faces of many of my childhood friends, but I can hardly recall the names of more than one or two.

Now, try to recall a memorable day much later in your life, perhaps the day you graduated from college. Do you have a recollection of the commencement ceremony and the speaker giving their speech? You probably do. However, do you remember anything the speaker said? To take it a step further, do you remember the date of your graduation? If you do, you likely have to think hard to recall it.

It does not have to be a memorable incident in your life. Let's try to recall something mundane from your vacation a few years ago. You likely still remember some detail about the hotel where you stayed: the location, the structure, or the layout of the room. But do you remember the room number? Despite having memorized it for the duration of your stay, you likely have no recollection of it.

Finally, instead of dwelling on memories from your past, let's try to recall something more recent, such as a dinner you went out for recently with your friends or family. I am sure a visual recollection of it came to you as soon as I mentioned it. But, do you remember the total amount on the bill? You likely had to make some effort to recall it, and you probably visualized the receipt to help.

What is fascinating about our brain is that it has virtually infinite storage of visual memories, but is terrible at storing and recalling words and numbers. However, if we think about it in the context of our evolution, it makes perfect sense.

Humans have been using and perfecting our vision throughout our evolutionary history. The survival of our species and the species that preceded us was dependent on having a sophisticated visual system. Everything from recognizing predators, foraging for food, to navigating a complex terrain relied on an extraordinary visual faculty. Because of its importance in our evolutionary history, it has become an essential part of our cognitive system.

On the other hand, languages, written words, and numbers became part of our evolutionary history only during its latest epoch. Experts claim that our ancestors invented spoken language about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. The use of numbers appeared much later; about 10,000 years ago. The foundation of the modern writing system based on symbols appeared only about 5000 years ago.

To understand how well developed our visual system is, here are some numbers to consider: 50% of our brain is devoted, either directly or indirectly, to vision. Links to retinas in our eyes account for 40% of our nerve fibers, and 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual information.

Our brain functions using two different systems: an impulsive system and a deliberative system. The impulsive system, our lizard brain, is what gives us the animal instinct of fight or flight. The deliberative system is what gives us our ability to be creative, analytical, notice trends and patterns, and find and solve problems.

Our visual faculty works incredibly well with the impulsive system. Seeing a rattlesnake sends a chill through our spine and makes us recoil instantly. Standing at the edge of a cliff makes us feel dizzy. It also works equally well with our deliberative system. Babies learn to recognize their parents' faces at a very early age and children quickly identify animals from their simple sketches.

Just looking at this picture makes some people feel slightly dizzy for a moment.

Our visual faculty is also very powerful in its ability to evoke emotion and leave an imprint in our memory. Love, at first sight, is not uncommon, whether it is people we like, the house we want to live in, or the painting we want to hang on our wall. Seeing someone smile makes us feel better, but seeing a child cry breaks our heart. Our visual memory is encoded in the same part of our brain, the medial temporal lobe, where emotions are processed. Our visual stimuli and emotional response are easily linked and, working together, they form memories.

Visual cues like these evoke emotions.

Given the versatility of our visual faculty, it should come as no surprise that our ability to learn is also much better when we use visual methods. 65% of people learn better using visual methods compared to only 5% who learn better using textual methods. As one education expert put it, "…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear."

There is no doubt that we have a phenomenal ability to process and remember visual information, much more than our ability to process words and numbers. And there should also be no doubt leveraging this ability is the most effective way to train our workforce for construction safety.

Visual safety training, those based on images or videos, would allow crew members to see and remember how to best respond to unsafe situations, as well as having a firm understanding of what precautions to take when performing certain tasks. Trainings conducted as lectures, where information is given verbatim from a document, are harder for crew members to remember, especially when they need to make split-second decisions.

Every business has what is inarguably the most valuable asset: its workforce. Their natural intelligence to process visual information is unmatched by even the best artificial intelligence systems out there. By conducting visual training with our workforce, we not only help them make better safety decisions, but we also tap into their incredible innate ability to remember what they have learned and exercise their knowledge more intuitively.

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