July 8, 2015 | Joe Geng |

Avoid Visual Fatigue: 15 Ways to Make Sure Your Safety Message Sticks

By the time you start work for the day, you’ve already been exposed to 20,000 visual messages over the past 24 hours. This isn’t just advertisements, it also includes labels in the grocery store, signs on the road and information on social media networks. So it doesn’t matter if you slept well, you may still suffer from visual fatigue.

While we seem to process these messages without much thought, our brains are actually working an insane amount to take in all that we see. Look at these stats:


Do you know the reason you stopped to read those stats? They were presented in a clear, concise and colorful message that didn’t blend in with the surrounding wall of text. It’s called information architecture and it’s how visual messages — designs, graphics and lettering — are organized to make sure that you, the intended audience, pays attention.

45 percent of your waking hour is spent surrounded by media. There’s a lot of competition for your time. Odds are one in three readers who clicked on this article have already abandoned it for something more visually stimulating. So how do you get your safety message across to a workforce with visual fatigue?

visual fatigue


1. Understand Visual Brainpower:

There’s a reason that 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. For one thing, the brain can handle it. Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text, according to research by 3M Corporation. Other studies find that our brains decipher image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a slower linear, sequential manner.


2. Know We’re Wired to Receive Visuals

Humans are visual by nature. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, we’re genetically wired to respond differently to visuals than text.

Our perceptions of the world and the workplace, the information we absorb and the signals we send, are overwhelmingly visual. We think and dream in pictures and symbolic images. We replay and recreate life visually in our heads. Even when reading, we transform words into mental images.

So, how does any of this matter for safety in the workplace?


3. Rely on Visuals to Educate:

Psychology says that you learned 75 percent of what you believe to be true through visual queues.

Think about your facility and how you communicate safety information and how it’s presented. Seeing comes before words.

According to Dr. Lynell Burmark, of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development:

“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. Words are processed by our short-term memory. Images go directly into long-term memory.”

Think about how much easier it is to show a circle than to describe it – “a curved line with every point equal distance from the center.”

4. Use Blended Learning: Visuals, Demonstrations and Text:

Of all our primary sense receptors (smell, touch, hearing, sight, and taste), the human eye is by far the most dominant “information expressway” to the brain. Three days after being presented with information like at a safety orientation session, we retain 20 percent of what we heard; 40 percent of what we heard and saw; and 70 percent of what we heard, saw and was demonstrated to us.


Hands-on demonstrations are critical to safety learning. Before tackling a new job, an employee should watch a veteran break down the individual tasks of that job and show where the hazards are via job safety analyses (JSAs) or job hazard analyses (JHAs).


5. Safety Compliance Training Should Include Realistic Simulations:

An employee must never, according to OSHA regulations, enter a confined space, lockout/tagout energized equipment, work at heights, work in a trench, drive a forklift or handle hazardous materials without training. And the most effective training allows employees to realistically visualize the safe way of mastering these dangerous tasks by demonstrations combined with video clips.


6. Teach Observation Skills:

You can teach your employees to be good observers. Teachers at the Boston Arts Academy used a cardboard frame called a viewfinder to help students learn to focus and observe.

But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Behavior-based safety has been widely used in facilities. The concept was first introduced into Procter & Gamble facilities in the 1970s.

All levels of workers — laborers, supervisors and upper management — used checklists to observe and report unsafe behavior.

Once the observation was recorded, corrective feedback was immediately given to the worker. When correct behavior was observed, positive feedback would be immediately provided.


7. Use Visual Objects to Problem Solve:

Safety problem-solving by teams, committees or work cells can be taught by tapping and critiquing employees’ visual knowledge. Imagine these brainstorming sessions being conducted in an art class or studio.

  • Use visual objects – charts and graphs of injury or near-miss incidents, demonstrations and depictions of work processes, videos taken on-site of work in progress.
  • Instructors or facilitators lead the group in closely observing statistics to see patterns and trends.
  • Through imagery (videos, illustrations, still photography sequences) employees come to understand how safety depends on the choices they make while in the process of working.
  • During safety critiques and one-to-one safety coaching, employees are asked:
    • “Is this the safest way of doing this job?”
    • “Is this what you intended to do?”
    • “Can you do this job in a safer way?”
    • “What will you do the next time to make this job safer?”

One way to implement this is by using a glove board. In a simple and clear fashion, there posters explain which glove should be used depending on the task based on light, medium, heavy or special duties.

Glove board


8. Combine Observations with Conversation:

These safety exercises show that combining visuals with verbal mentoring and instructional texts is the most effective way of transmitting safety information. Use an integrated, blended learning approach. The same holds true for observation and feedback sessions. Behavior-based safety employs a combination of observation and conversation.


9. Keep Signage Easy on the Eye:

Most safety signs in the workplace combine imagery with words. In many instances, the fewer the words the better. You want your signs to inform, protect and motivate. Clean, bold, organized visuals and text accomplish this objective.

A special section of OSHA’s website on heat stress prevention uses rotating photos to remind workers to cool down, drink water and take appropriate rest breaks. The text is plain and simple: “A little bit of shade goes a long way.” “Stopping for water keeps you going.” The clean, well-organized heat stress webpage makes good use of “white space” and is headlined using a large horizontal graphic. It includes an iconic illustration: the sun radiating its harmful rays. And the text: “Water. Rest. Shade. The work can’t get done without them.”


10. Take Advantage of Symbols

One of the coolest things about our brains is that we can use context clues to interpret symbols. If you see a garbage bin icon on the computer, you instantly make a connection that that icon means “delete.”

OSHA revised its hazard communication standard to take advantage of symbols. As of June 1, 2015 the hazard communication standard will require pictograms on labels to alert users of the chemical hazards to which they may be exposed. Each pictogram consists of a symbol on a white background framed within a red border and represents a distinct hazard(s). The pictogram on the label is determined by the chemical hazard classification. For example:

Exclamation mark:
exclamation mark label

  • Irritant (skin and eye)
  • Skin Sensitizer
  • Acute Toxicity
  • Narcotic Effects
  • Respiratory Tract Irritant
  • Hazardous to Ozone Layer (Non-Mandatory)

flame label

  • Flammables
  • Pyrophorics
  • Self-Heating
  • Emits Flammable Gas
  • Self-Reactives
  • Organic Peroxides

Skull and Crossbones:

skull label

  • Substance is acutely toxic, and possibly fatal.


The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for classifying and labeling hazardous substances uses nine different pictograms. These simple, stark, bold illustrations placed inside diamond-shaped red framing borders will be used not only by OSHA but by all countries that have adopted the United Nations-sponsored GHS.


11. Choose Colors to Tap Different Emotions:

We’ve covered how color coding can improve your safety program on the site before. It’ll come as no surprise to safety professionals that the color red has been chosen to frame these pictograms. Color is a crucial component of safety signage. Visual colors affect us emotionally. Research shows that exposure to the color red can heighten our pulse and breathing rates. That’s because psychologically the color red has long been associated with danger. The colors blue or green would be less startling and more relaxing. That’s not the response regulators want when workers are handling dangerous substances.


12. Don’t Waste Time With Words:

Workplace signs don’t necessarily need a lot of words. Many of the most important icons have been ingrained in our brains since childhood.

  • A sign with two stick-figure students walking indicates a pedestrian crossing nearby.
  • The stick figure in a wheelchair indicates parking space or access for the disabled.
  • Two parallel wavy arrows pointing upward indicate temporary traffic controls.
  • Speed limit and STOP signs are designed to be clean, bold, and visible from a distance.


Don’t waste time by hanging up wordy signs when an image that alerts a worker in less time could be used.


13. Get Creative

The other area of safety where visual communication — signs, banners, posters, scoreboards, wall and window graphics, and safety awareness kits – comes into play is motivation and awareness.

Here the themes and messages are very different from traditional safety warnings and hazard alerts. The visual can be more playful. One example: posters that look like they were drawn by children, depicting a family at home, showing the value of staying safe on the job for the sake of your family. These motivational pieces use a variety of bright colors such as yellows, greens, blues that create an upbeat emotional appeal. Other motivational signs and banners use icons such as the American eagle to appeal to the emotion of pride, or the color green used in simple wordage such as “Think Green” to promote sustainability and environmentalism.


14. Personalize It:

Videos of recognizable areas of your workplace, photographs of your employees, use of your company logo and/or motto all pull at the emotions of workers, especially in smaller enterprises where everyone knows each other and a family feeling culture exists. Customized visual aids send the message that your company is not simply generically supporting safety, but is willing to put its name and reputation on the line. Employees are more likely to believe their company sincerely “buys into” safety.

Many companies today are publicly promoting their vision and goal of zero injuries on site. One electronic scoreboard automatically updates the days worked without a lost-time injury in large LED digits for visibility. Scoreboard colors are often done in traditional “safety green.” Some are three-dimensional, with imagery or colors and lettering wrapping around the sides. And some are more “infographic” than others, with wording spelling out “This plant has worked XXX days without a lost-time injury. The best previous record was XXX. Do your part! Help make a new record.”


15. Where You Place Your Signage is Key:

Placement of your safety visuals is an important part of your overall safety communication efforts. Some signs and labels must be placed on hazardous containers or very close to at-risk jobs. Thematic banners, general safety messages, and motivational scoreboards should be placed in high traffic areas, visible to employees, outside contractors, and business visitors. Some displays are constructed for harsh outdoor conditions, for the benefit of outdoor workers and also public passersby. Taken together, your workplace collection of safety signage, both warnings and inspirational messages, help brand your company as one that values its employees’ well-being, values the environment, and is socially responsible.


Next Steps:

You don’t need to implement all of these items at once. The important thing is to realize that your workforce needs a hand to be safe. Whether they admit to feeling visual fatigue or not, help improve your workplace safety by making compliance easier.


Need a compliance cheat sheet? Download our Top 10 Compliance Tips now!

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Joe Geng
About Joe Geng
Vice President of Superior Glove