62 The development and trial of systematic visual search; a novel method to improve the observation of workplace hazards during inspections

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Visual inspection, as core element in hazard identification, represents a widely used risk assessment method for workplace safety. However, poorly conducted visual inspections are problematical as observable hazards that should be seen, are often missed. Fourteen fatalities from the Rosepark Nursing Home fire in Scotland in 2011, tragically exemplifies this problem. The coroner in this case, reporting under judicial conditions concluded that; if the health and safety consultant who conducted a recent workplace inspection, had correctly observed inappropriately stored flammable materials, the deaths would have been avoided.


To improve the practice of visual inspection, a systematic visual search method was developed and tested under randomised controlled trial conditions. Participants (n=211), previously trained in occupational health and food safety, were tasked with visually inspecting an industrial standard kitchen during a thirty minute period. The experimental group (n=107) received training in the use of systematic visual search while a control group (n=104) conducted their visual inspection as per normal. The kitchens were specially prepared for the experiment and contained a known number of observable hazards, representative of what environmental health and safety professionals, routinely encounter in reality.


Control group participants were only able to identify a circa mean 33% of observable hazards in the kitchens. In contrast experimental group participants, using the novel systematic visual search method, observed, a circa mean 50% of observable hazards present. This 17% difference was highly significant, with a large effect size (p≤0.001, Cohen’s d=1.85), and demonstrates the higher performance of systematic visual search compared to current visual inspection practice.


These base rates reported, remain below what should be expected from environmental health and safety professionals. Visual inspection therefore needs further academic attention in order to improve workplace visual inspection practice and thereby improve the standard of risk assessment.

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