New report highlights post-pandemic sign blindness risk05 November 2021

Health and safety experts are warning that UK workers are at risk from ‘sign blindness’ after the COVID-19 epidemic.

Recent research from the Office of National Statistics showed that 60% of adults expect to be back in their normal place of work before the end of autumn. Now, health and safety solutions provider Seton has joined forces with top academics and psychologists to review the risk that sign blindness poses with many offices reopen and manufacturing teams returning to full strength following the end of furlough.

Together, they are advising that overexposure to signage, rules and safety warnings during the pandemic is likely to lead to complacency amongst employees and a failure to register the standard safety signs in front of them.

The new report highlights that sign blindness potentially poses one of the biggest risks to workplace health and safety in decades.

As Ed Barnes, product innovation manager at Seton explains, sign blindness is such a threat because we are all susceptible to it. He says: “The human mind has a remarkable ability to interpret abstract symbols, shapes and colours quickly – but we can soon become desensitised to something, even though the hazard remains the same.

“Over the last 19 months, our lives have been saturated by signage and messaging such as ‘please wear a face covering’, ‘wash your hands regularly’ and ‘keep two metres apart’. They have been incredibly important messages, but it’s only natural that over time we become desensitised to them.

“Now, as millions of us return to work, there’s a real concern that sign blindness could cause serious issues when it comes to changes in workplace rules, including new procedures that need to be communicated and signage relating to old ways of working that is yet to be removed.

“While a handful of people break the rules on purpose, many more do so unintentionally. We expect this number to increase as the pandemic has resulted in safety messages becoming ‘background noise’ to many people, meaning signs could fail to drive the right behaviours.

“We know that the world is changing quickly, so organisations need to make sure they are continually reviewing the effectiveness of their current signage and adapting quickly to new and existing hazards as they emerge. By taking a flexible approach, you can drive up safety standards and reassure staff, customers and visitors that you take your responsibilities seriously.”

Professor Thorsten Chmura is an experienced behavioural economist and director of the Centre for Behavioural Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. Contributing to the report, Chmura said that different forms of communication can help reinforce health and safety policies alongside traditional signage:

“Some people learn better by listening, while others like to read a message or watch a video. Offering all methods of communication and learning will certainly help individuals to engage with their preferred method.

“During the pandemic we received easy, simple instructions. This is because instructions must make sense, otherwise we will not follow them. They should also be clear.

“There can be too many signs, which we perceive as overregulation, and this makes us feel confused. A mixture of pictograms, texts and other communication media can break the pattern and lead to positive behaviour enforcement.”

The report Sign Blindness: A big risk to health and safety is available for download via the link below.

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