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There are few communication tools more universally used than the toolbox talks, and for good reason!
When used in the right way, toolbox talks can be an effective method of communication. They offer a way to quickly disseminate short bursts of important information, without getting bogged down in the details or taking up too much time.
While all of this may sound ideal, toolbox talks aren’t a magic bullet and they do require planning and management to be successful over the long term. The most common reason toolbox talks get tuned out by workers is because the topics being discussed aren’t meaningful or relevant to them. When workers don’t feel emotionally connected to the content they will eventually stop listening and then it just becomes noise.
In the next few paragraphs we’re going to talk about how to capture interest and maximize the effectiveness of your toolbox talk program—and it’s a lot easier than you might think! But before we get into the details, let’s cover a few basics about toolbox talks, such as what they are, why they’re called “toolbox talks” and a quick discussion about what they aren’t or shouldn’t be.
It’s unclear where the term “toolbox talk” first originated. However, we do know the term was used within trade and safety publications from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s to describe impromptu meetings between construction foremen and their workers, usually held around a toolbox on the job site.
Regardless of its origin, we know that the term is most often associated with a safety-related discussion. We also know that out of all the industries using this tool, construction and manufacturing industries seem to use and get the most out of the toolbox talks.
Toolbox talks, which are also sometimes called safety briefings or tailgate talks, are very short and informal conversations usually conducted at the start of the work shift. The purpose of these talks is to communicate awareness and/or key points of information about a specific topic. Another way to explain it would be to say it’s a casual group discussion where, depending on the topic, everyone can participate.
Many companies incorporate toolbox talks into the first 10-15 minutes of a work shift to discuss things like new or potential safety concerns, changes in the work environment that may affect the health or safety of the workforce, or to refresh workers on a more complex safety topic. Some examples may be lockout/tagout, or as a means to cover certain very small safety training requirements, especially within the construction industry.
Even though most workers would probably prefer a 10-15 minute toolbox talk over regular, hour long safety training sessions, toolbox talks should never be used as a substitute for those more in-depth training sessions. 15 minutes just isn’t enough time to provide adequate training for most safety topics, and especially not for things like lockout/tagout or electrical safety. (We said “most” because there are training topics that really don’t need much more than 15 minutes…) Because of their casual or informal nature, toolbox talks are also not an appropriate method for communicating very serious information, such as pending layoffs or workplace fatalities. Those conversations should be held someplace more formal where workers can really focus on the information without distractions or feeling rushed.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics about toolbox talks, let’s start things off by talking about how to choose meaningful topics.
It’s important to remember with toolbox talks that quantity doesn’t equal quality and that for something to be meaningful, it must be relevant to the listeners. Sure, you could search online for “toolbox talk topics” and be handsomely rewarded with 31,200,000 results (in 0.41 seconds). But unless the topics chosen are relatable in some way, they won’t be as thought provoking or meaningful as they could be. In other words, to make it matter you have to make it somewhat personal. If this sounds complicated, don’t fret, it’s actually a lot easier than you might think!
Online searches are great at producing a lot of ideas for toolbox talks and if your safety culture is not yet mature because you’re just starting to build it, we don’t want to discourage you from finding topics this way. However, we also want to mention that regardless of the maturity level of the safety culture, one of the most valuable places to find good topics for toolbox talks is from within the organization itself. Think about it. Most companies, even those just starting to build a safety culture, are doing so either because they’ve suffered a large number of incidents or because they’ve identified areas for improvement. Either way, it’s within those situations where a company can find a wealth of meaningful topics to discuss.
For example, if you’re going through the trouble of collecting information on near miss incidents but aren’t mining that data for topics, you’re missing a big opportunity. All of those near misses, especially if they have any sort of recurring theme, are rife for discussion and it’s through those discussions that you’ll find ways to prevent recurrence. Seems like a win-win, doesn’t it?
Another thing that finding topics within your near miss and first aid injury incidents provides is a great way of making the topic meaningful by making it more personal. Because every one of these incidents happened to someone working for your company, it automatically makes them more personal than sharing information about a generic topic you found online. If you really want to rev up the participation and interest in toolbox talks, ask the people involved in these minor incidents to deliver them. Anytime you can get workers involved in delivering a safety message, especially when they can talk about how the incident impacted them personally, is a great thing.
Speaking of personal messages, if it’s been a while since you had an incident and/or you’re just really struggling to find topics to talk about, it’s never a bad idea to approach the workforce for suggestions. Of course, you’ll want to screen the messages to make sure they’re appropriate but there’s something to be said for incorporating the workforce in this way which goes back to making that emotional connection—and this is a great way to do that.
A final way of making toolbox talks more personal and ensuring that emotional connection is by using a simple activity like the one in this example. Anytime workers can participate in this way, it’s guaranteed to stick with them for a bit.
Once you’ve figured out a few good topics to deliver, the next most important thing you can do is to work on the mechanics of your process. By “mechanics” we mean things like the format and methods used to deliver your toolbox talks, as well as setting boundaries for how long they can be, when they should be given and how you’re going to log and/or track topics to ensure there’s a suitable variety.
The format used to construct toolbox talks is going to affect not only how they’re delivered, but it’s also going to be the catalyst for ensuring the right message is conveyed and in the right way. The great thing about toolbox talks is that the format doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be functional and easy to use.
Another important attribute is standardized formatting, because standardization (or doing the same thing the same way every time) builds operational memory, and as that memory improves, so does the delivery and the overall process. If you’re not sure where to start with the format, we can help! We've created a simple toolbox talk template you can use to get started.
Next up is deciding who will deliver toolbox talks, when they will be delivered and choosing their length. If we can offer any suggestions, it would be these:
The other important mechanic to consider when building out a toolbox talk program is how you’re going to keep track of the topics so that the same topics aren’t covered all the time, and that material isn’t repeated year after year. The easiest method to do this is by using a simple spreadsheet to track the topic and the date it was discussed.
If you’re in the market for EHS software, check out our Job Safety Analysis (JSA) Module. It's a great tool for developing and managing toolbox talks. Every one of our modules comes with access to our Document Library, where everything from permits to toolbox talks can be stored and managed. Interested in finding out more? Contact us! We’d love to hear from you!
Katy Lyden is a EHS Domain Analyst and Subject Matter Expert for StarTex Software, the company behind EHS Insight. Prior to her current role, Katy spent 17 years successfully leading EHS programs for several large companies within the manufacturing industry. Katy is a Navy veteran, Licensed Emergency Medical...
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