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Applying the Tools of Digital Videography to EH&S

By Thomas C. Ouimet
(Written for the Synergist - American Industrial Hygiene Association. 14(9):27-9, 2003 Sept.)

Humans are a visual species. We assimilate information rapidly through visual media. Images flashed before us on MTV for as little as a quarter of a second are readily absorbed and understood.

In as little as 15 seconds, advertisers, using visual media effectively, can influence behavior and purchasing decisions. Images on news broadcasts, documentaries and films are also used daily to influence our opinions and convey ideas.

Although the power of images to influence human opinions and behavior—and the speed with which visual media can communicate—have been understood for decades, the EH&S field has not leveraged the use of this media to further the goals of the profession. Visual media have only been used in very limited ways; for instance, as training tools or as aids in visualizing some activity as part of a research project.

The limited adaptation of this powerful tool has been largely due to the high cost of producing visual media of an acceptable quality. But two simultaneous technological breakthroughs that occurred several years ago changed everything:

  •  The introduction of digital camcorders capable of transferring images through high speed computer data links to computer hard drives, and
  • The availability of desktop computer workstations capable of storing and manipulating the huge video data files.

All of this—a digital camcorder, computer editing workstation and associated software—is readily available today for less than $4,000. This is less then the cost of most industrial hygiene monitoring equipment and less than 5 percent of what the equipment cost just 10 years ago. Powerful, professional quality video can now be developed inexpensively by anyone, and this is changing the way we communicate ideas, influence management, workers and regulators and capture/archive information.

Using Video in EH&S Training

So now that we can create video, what can we do with it? What is possible today that was not possible yesterday? I see at least three major areas where EH&S professionals can use video to enhance their practice—in training, as a tool to communicate and archive our professional activities and to assist in assessing the source of exposures or risks in certain jobs.

Site-specific video training material can now be quickly produced by subject matter experts. These videos can be long-form, narrated pieces or stand-alone short clips that illustrate a key concept and are incorporated into a PowerPoint® or other training presentation. Video is a must when you are trying to convey or demonstrate how a task is to be performed. Internally produced video can incorporate site-specific practices, images and perhaps messages from local employees and management. These images and messages can be targeted for a specific audience. No longer do EH&S professionals need to be satisfied with video-based training materials that are too generic, do not sufficiently cover a topic or are technically inaccurate. Employees tend to be far more interested and attentive when watching themselves or their peers on the screen and when they recognize their work environment.

Make Your Own Products

I think the real value of producing your own material will be the production of new and unique products—materials that have never been commercially available. Let me give you a few examples. I have produced a video that illustrates someone doing more than 35 specific tasks incorrectly when performing a spill response activity. It is shown to a training audience after audience members have learned the correct way to respond and presents an opportunity for them to identify all of the errors (generally in competitive teams). This is a fun, engaging activity and can, if properly facilitated, solidify key concepts in the minds of participants.

I have also produced a video that allows an employee to take a virtual tour of a higher-risk work environment. It is intended for employees who must enter these spaces infrequently, perhaps for an emergency or maintenance. In the video they see exactly what they will encounter if they must enter the space and learn exactly how they should conduct themselves in the space. The video is set up on a DVD and is interactive and menu driven. The DVD contains supplemental information on the space if they wish to view it, such as how the space and equipment is typically used by employees who regularly work in these spaces. We have found this to be a great way to “demystify” spaces that were misunderstood and deemed unsafe by some of our employees who worked in them.

Video can also be used to capture the knowledge and experience of long-term employees. Much safety information is passed from experienced trades people to newly hired workers by pairing them in teams. This information is often passed along through stories of incidents or near misses. By capturing the stories and experiences of these seasoned workers with video and incorporating them into training materials, this very influential wealth of knowledge and experience can be secured for all future employees.

Replacing Reports and Training Materials

Videos can replace written reports as tools for communicating and archiving environmental health and safety information. No longer do we have to rely on written descriptions of tasks that comprise a negative exposure assessment, the results of an exposure simulation or the steps involved in locking out a complex machine. Instead, these tasks, results or steps can be easily captured and narrated with video. Text relaying methodology, air sampling data or other information can be overlaid on top of the images.

A few minutes of narrated video can instantly convey what was, or is to be done, and replace pages of text that can never convey the same rich information that can be communicated with images. I have found that a few minutes of video demonstrating an alternative and more cost-effective work practice can make a very persuasive presentation to regulators, who more readily approve the new practice because they can grasp instantly what is to be done and how.

I have used video to assist in understanding the mechanisms of exposure to solvents or particulate that can be quantified with real-time instruments. This is not a new use of video, but this technique can now be more widely used because of the reduced cost associated with capturing and editing the video. A simple charting program is available that can import real-time data from a spreadsheet, create a graph and overlay it on video. This software, which can be found at www.stagetools.com, costs less than $200 and requires no special hardware.

I also use video to understand the types of activities and movements that lead to exposure when manipulating chemicals on the laboratory bench and when working with pastels in art classes. Exposure data, overlaid onto simultaneously collected video, is a wonderful training tool when turned into short clips and made part of a training program. It clearly shows the types of activities and movements that can lead to exposure.

Digital video has created new opportunities for EH&S professionals to communicate effectively and to capture and archive their work through relatively inexpensive technology. Each of us should take the time to learn about it and begin incorporating it into our professional practice.

What You’ll Need

Purchasing the equipment to create high-quality video and establishing a video editing workstation is not difficult. There are two major equipment components: a digital video camcorder and a computer editing station. To transfer digital video back and forth, a fire wire or IEEE 1394 connection is required on both the camcorder and computer editing station. Cameras may be purchased for as little as $800, but by spending $2,000 or more, extremely high-quality images can be captured. Once images are captured they can easily be ordered into a logical sequence, mixed with narration and music and overlaid with text and graphics on a common desktop or even laptop computer editing station with inexpensive software packages such as Adobe Premiere® or Apple’s Final Cut Pro®.

Compatibility is still a major problem if you are working in a PC environment. It is essential that you research your equipment and make sure the camcorder, video editing package, fire wire card, operating system and other computer components, such as the graphics card and hard disk drives, are all compatible and up to the job of moving and storing the volume of data associated with video. Purchasing your capture card and editing software as a bundle, and making sure your computer system meets the minimum requirements of the bundle, will help avoid compatibility problems. If you are not particularly computer savvy, just purchase a computer already set up to edit video. Most computer manufacturers sell them today at a small premium in price over a standard desktop computer.

Three Steps to Creating a Video

The learning curve to produce high-quality video is steep and production of video is time-consuming— typically two to eight hours per minute of finished video. The longer development times are associated with the production of training materials that contain complex graphics, overlaid images and animation. Simpler projects, such as creating a minimally narrated demonstration of a “best practice,” may take as little as two to three hours per minute of finished video. In all cases, the three-step production process is similar to that followed in documentary film production.

Books describing the documentary film process are a great resource for learning the steps, technology and art associated with video production. During the first step, preproduction, the project concept is defined; the content is outlined; a budget is estimated; the narrative, script and storyboard are developed; shooting locations are chosen; and people willing to serve as actors are found. This is the longest step of video production, but if it is done well, the next two steps go quickly and smoothly.

The second step is production. In this step the visual and audio components that will make up the video are shot or collected. Visuals may include video, still images, animation and graphics. Audio components may include narration, voiceover, music and other sounds. In the final step, post-production, the various visual and audio components are assembled so that the story or message can be conveyed effectively. It is a lot like piecing a puzzle together.

To limit your level of frustration, select an initial project that conveys a straightforward topic with a limited number of steps such as how to lock out a piece of equipment. The project should only be two to five minutes in length. Take on more complex projects as you gain experience.

Once developed, the video can be distributed in different ways and in many different formats. It can be shown or distributed as a full-length training program and, at the same time, be cut up into short clips and incorporated into a PowerPoint presentation. It can be distributed on VHS tape, DVD or one of the many computer-based CD-ROM formats or streamed on the Internet. High-quality streaming video can now be delivered to anyone with a high bandwidth connection such as cable or DSL. The format chosen will depend on the audience’s familiarity with the different formats and the equipment available to them. My preferred distribution format is the DVD because of its high-quality image and the menu-driven interactivity it offers. This allows viewers to select one or more parts of the video to watch at any particular time and allows the video producer to create nonlinear material or material for multiple audiences.

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