O is for observation

How many stairs are there in your home? Unless you live in a bungalow you probably don’t know the answer to this question. Even if you climb up and walk down them every day it is doubtful that you have ever observed them closely. It probably doesn’t seem important.

© iStock/Dimitris66

If you had to pay attention to everything, you’d be overwhelmed by the information overload. As William James explained in his book The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, attention is not just about what you observe but also about what you choose not to observe. He wrote: “It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” Being able to ignore most of what we see or hear is essential for survival. We can switch our attention, sometimes through conscious effort, but sometimes because of a sudden change, such as a flash of light or sudden movement.

Selective attention allows us to ignore anything that doesn’t appear relevant or we are not expecting. The gorilla in the room has been used in countless presentations and courses to illustrate this point.

With workplace inspections or audits, or when collecting information for a risk assessment, we need to improve our ability to observe even those things we are not expecting, or that might initially seem irrelevant. A well-written checklist can guide the observer so that they notice the existence or the omission of all the items listed. However, a checklist can also distract the observer, making it less likely that the individual will see other hazards that are not listed.


The act of attempting to draw will help you to focus on details


Research suggests people can be trained to make better observations. One technique is to draw an image (even if you’re not a good artist). The act of attempting to draw will help you to focus on details, learning to look at your surroundings with a fresh perspective.

The Campbell Institute (part of the US National Safety Council) ran a pilot study, in which staff were trained in “visual literacy” (this will be the focus of a future article in IOSH Magazine). This involves looking for lines, shapes, colours, textures and space. For example, wavy lines might indicate a trailing cable, the texture of the floor might indicate a slip hazard or looking for yellow might help observe the presence or absence of personal protective equipment.

The institute reports that at one manufacturing site 25 hazards were identified and corrected using visual literacy techniques. Although there was no before comparator for this statistic, the organisation could demonstrate that workers’ perception of the risk from machines, slips and trips, and falls from height all increased after visual literacy training.

Observation is not only about looking in the right place. Psychologist Gustav Kuhn, the author of Experiencing the Impossible: the science of magic, explains: “People don’t fail to notice things simply because they are not looking in the right place; they miss things because their mind is misdirected. Our work shows that people can look directly at something, yet they still do not see it.”


As well as listening and looking for body language signals and cues, observing how you feel is important, for example, sensing frustration or anxiety


Misdirection in magic is similar to dual task interference in psychology. The driver using their mobile phone doesn’t observe the pedestrian about to cross the road; the worker thinking about the time pressures they are under doesn’t notice the warning light on the machinery; and the auditor writing reams of notes about what they have seen so far might miss the next hazard they walk past.

Observation is not restricted to what you can see. It should include listening to voices and sounds, sensing temperatures and smells. OSH practitioner and coach Michael Emery goes further. He says: “As well as listening and looking for body language signals and cues, observing how you feel is important, for example, sensing frustration or anxiety.”

What we observe depends on our experiences and interests. Joint audits between full-time safety and health professionals and workers’ representatives or bringing in people from other departments are likely to improve the quality of the observations. Bringing someone new to a workplace overcomes the familiarity bias.

Next time you’re sitting in a cafe or work canteen on your own, instead of getting out your laptop or phone, develop your observational muscles for all your senses. 



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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