Dangers of sign blindness

Some lingering effects of Covid-19 could jeopardise safety in construction. Ed Barnes, Product Innovation Manager at health and safety company Seton, reveals the dangers of sign blindness

There were more deaths in the construction sector in 2021-22 than any other, according to the Health and Safety Executive; as a result, everyone in the industry is familiar with workplace safety messaging. And since the height of the UK’s Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, instructional safety signage has played an important role for everyone.

However, this mass exposure to messages in our everyday lives could now be having a negative impact on workplace safety, according to psychologist Dr Jennifer Parkin. When compiling our recent report on the topic, she explained more about why sign blindness – an industry term that simply means we fail to notice what’s in front of us – happens. “Our visual perception does not capture the world around us in a camera-like way; research indicates that there are limits to the amount of information that we can pay attention to at any one time,” she says.

Additional distractions and repeated exposure to visual warning signs could also hinder people’s ability to notice or respond to danger. Dr Parkin adds: “When we detect a threat, our brains initiate an increase in adrenaline and noradrenaline as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. These stress hormones increase our alertness and ability to remember details of the situation. But at high levels, they can also impair cognition, meaning we find it harder to come up with new solutions to manage a situation.”

It’s important to reduce the visual complexity of working environments to remove unnecessary mental load and ensure attention is focused. Modern signage uses auditory alarms to trigger alerts only when needed. This could help draw attention to critical hazards without diminishing people’s ability to process information.

Clear expectations

Mixed messaging from senior leaders can also lead to confusion and changes in behaviour. It is important that employers set out site rule expectations with clear signage and ensure that any redundant or old messaging is removed to avoid confusion.

Company culture plays a big role in influencing people’s behaviour, says Professor Thorsten Chmura, Director of the Centre for Behavioural Sciences at Nottingham Trent University.

“The big things that influence behaviour are elements around how satisfied people are. If your organisation fails to recognise this and instil trust, it’s likely that attitudes and behaviour towards it will be negatively affected and the entire system breaks apart,” he says.

It is important to pay attention to the different motivations and attitudes within an organisation, Chmura suggests. For example, someone aiming for promotion may overlook safety regulations to complete their tasks more efficiently. Alternatively, a disgruntled team member may provoke more widespread disrespect of the rules. “People tend to copy strategies of others that were successful,” Chmura says. “It’s easy to see how a workplace can quickly go from being respectful of warning signs to finding them unnecessary.”

Of course, if a general feeling that safety signage is unnecessary takes hold, it creates the risk that individuals will start to ignore it, putting workforce safety in jeopardy.

Workplaces across the country are subject to a large number of factors that make it even harder to uphold health and safety standards. Sign blindness is one of them, but a combination of addressing the workplace environment and a holistic approach towards staff culture and safety measures can help to overcome it. 

To read the report, visit seton.co.uk

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