“I just didn’t see him!” That’s the phrase you often hear motorists use after they have collided with a motorbike or cyclist.

The truth, of course, is that they may not have seen their unfortunate victim in the seconds before impact. In fact, it’s been shown that we find it more difficult to see ‘thinner’ objects like bikes, because they take up far less space in our visual field than an object like a car. The brain takes longer to ‘see’ a bike than a car.

But we’re not just talking about driving here - in many safety critical environments, the art of spotting a hazard is important if we are to remain safe and unharmed.

So what can we do to train our brains to spot hazards we are less likely to see as quickly?

We can start by making a real effort to pay more attention to our environments in risky situations. On the road, for example, if we’re turning out of a junction, we can give ourselves an extra second to scan the road for approaching hazards. This form of visual scanning can save lives. The unseen motorcyclist becomes a seen one. The person in dangerous proximity of a digging machine on a construction site ‘appears’. We are then able to assess the risk they pose and take the necessary action.

In our working environments, we often encounter a target-rich environment of objects, stationary or otherwise. Engineering works on the railway, an airport runway, or a busy construction site, can all present similar risks if we fail to notice the hazards. Slowing down to visually scan our environments is just as important here too. It’s a skill that can be taught with a little practise.

In short, we need to train our minds to stop us becoming oblivious to the hazards around us. Sometimes you cannot see what is right in front of you, despite the fact you know it is there.

As an analogy, think about hanging a new picture or family photo on a wall at home. You may even choose a prime, eye-level location in the hallway for your child’s first day at school. But how long does it take for you to stop paying attention to it? A week? A month? Clearly no one is going to die if you forget the presence of a family photo – though your spouse or partner might get mildly irritated! But supposing we’re talking about that power cable trailing across the floor at work. It’s been left there for a little while, perhaps to provide temporary power to some equipment. It was never intended as a long-term fix, but can quickly become an unsafe, unnoticed part of the environment. A bit like the family photo, except that this one could trip you up and cause serious injury.

A kind of perceptual blindness can prevail as hazards fade into the background and no longer ‘pop out’. Thankfully, we can overcome the brain’s inbuilt bias to filter out what may be crucial for an injury-free existence. It’s surprising what a positive impact paying attention visually to our immediate working environment, can have on safety.

We just need to take the time to look out for those hidden risks, whether they’re present in the physical environment, or relate to the way a job is being carried out. Railway workers who fail to move to a position of safety when a train approaches may have become so distracted that they cannot see an approaching train, despite the fact it is life threatening.

Fully perceiving and comprehending the hazards in our working environments helps drive health and safety improvements. One technique involves a quick, conscious scan of the immediate environment to guard against a form of visual complacency. For example, a mental checklist can guide our attention to walls, floors and working surfaces, all with the purpose of spotting potential hazards, or areas for improvement.

Slips, trips, falls and machine hazards are typical in many workplaces. Paying attention to any perceived hazards upon arrival to a site, and then as people undertake their duties, could pay dividends. The evidence suggests that such hazards often go unnoticed.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that, on average, slips and trips cause 40 per cent of all reported major injuries in the workplace. At one manufacturing site, 60 per cent of recordable injuries were found to be due to a lack of hazard recognition.*

It is worth highlighting that hazard recognition is not quite the same as near-miss reporting. A near-miss is normally construed as a largely unexpected event, one with the potential to cause harm or injury.

Call to action

  • This is where confidential reporting can play a strong role in facilitating responses to hazards and potential risks to the workforce. CIRAS often acts an early warning system.
  • Take the time to scan your workplace to look for hazards you may have become blinded to.
  • Take action or tell someone who can.
  • If you don’t feel able to raise it internally, call CIRAS.
  • A report containing an unaddressed safety risk is often actioned effectively after being reported to CIRAS.
  • It may be prioritised once the risk is finally ‘seen’.
  • Just like the family photo on the wall we’ve forgotten to notice over time, we all need reminding to pay attention to the risks around us.

*Inouye, J. (2018). A Second Look: Update on Visual Literacy. The Campbell Institute.