How to Give Effective Toolbox Talks, Part 1: The Basics
Toolbox talks play an important role in workplace health and safety programs. They provide an important balance between lengthy formal training, written policies and procedures, and new hire onboarding. When done well, they’re frequent, fast, and address topics relevant to the worksite, the workers, and that shift in particular. In addition, they can be used to address new hazards while lengthier, in-depth training is developed.
Let’s start with a definition. A toolbox talk is typically done at the start of the shift, gathering all workers together for a quick, informal group safety discussion. These 5- to 15-minute conversations guide participants through a specific hazard applicable to the worksite and the day's tasks while providing tips to manage the risk. They can serve as a reminder of known safety information (bringing it front of mind) or address new information to the group. The most effective toolbox talks are collaborative and encourage participation and knowledge transfer to benefit the entire group.
The Critical Role Toolbox Talks Play in Safety Programs
While toolbox talks are essential in workplace safety and health programs, they don't replace traditional training. Instead, toolbox talks are a supplement that helps reinforce what employees have learned and alert them to new hazards in their work environment.
They are an effective way to build employee engagement and workplace safety culture. When done consistently, they make safety a habit for participants, prompt employees to explore safety in their environment, and develop methods to improve safety that they can share with the group.
When building a habit, consistency is vital, and because toolbox talks are short and easily digestible, it's easy to make them a regular part of the workday. Toolbox talks also help foster robust safety communication and improve a company's safety culture.
For safety programs to be successful, they require participation from all levels of the organization. Programs that put all the responsibility of ensuring safety on the safety professional are rarely successful. With toolbox talks, employees are better informed and more capable of doing their part in protecting themselves and others from the hazards surrounding them.
Finally, a good toolbox talk is like a pep talk before a big game because it gives employees time to get their heads straight. Leaders can point them in the right direction, tell them what to expect and how to manage it, and then bring up concerns to the group. By doing so, workers are better prepared and less likely to be caught off guard. All these benefits help support any safety program's primary goal of reducing workplace injuries.
How to Boost Toolbox Talk Participation
According to Psychology Today, while incorrectly cited as people's biggest fear, the fear of public speaking is quite common and affects around 25% of the population. Anyone that has ever presented knows that getting audience participation isn't always the easiest.
The general fear of public speaking is one of the biggest hurdles to getting participation in group settings, especially if there are members of management present. Also, because toolbox talks generally happen before the shift begins, some employees could still be waking up.
However, toolbox talks are most effective when they are a collaborative conversation, and anyone who wants to get the most out of them needs to push for participation. Thankfully, there are a few things safety professionals, or anyone giving a toolbox talk, can do to encourage it.
Call on the audience: Maybe you've felt dread when you see presenters start to ask for participants or call on the audience and wouldn't want to pass that fear onto anyone else. However, when participation is the difference between an effective meeting that keeps workers safe, or those same workers taking a 15-minute nap, it may be precisely what you have to do.
Audience members who know they may be called upon at any moment are more likely to pay attention. Although the goal is to get people who want to participate to do so, this tactic can still be quite effective. Just make sure to use this method sparingly or as a last resort because it could give some crew members a negative view of toolbox talks.
Make it a story: Make sure you don't just read from a PowerPoint or a PDF. Instead, try to make the information come alive by putting it into a story. Creating a scenario that applies to your audience, something they might encounter in their daily work, is a great way to boost engagement.
Or, if you have personal stories of something similar, share those. Then, when you've finished, ask the audience if they've ever had anything similar happen to them. Sharing your own stories is often enough to get people to open up.
Ask for topic ideas: Ask the audience to develop topics for later toolbox talks. First, encourage them to identify issues they are experiencing or have seen in the past that they believe will benefit the rest of the group. Then, if you pick their idea, encourage them to participate by presenting it themselves or providing stories, pictures, or videos. This also creates ownership of safety and shows that safety is a group effort, and everyone working together can make a safer workplace.
Repackage old material: Picking new topics can be challenging, especially when doing a toolbox talk every morning or every shift. When your audience is attending their third or
fourth toolbox talk of the week, it can be natural for them to zone out. While some topics demand consistent coverage, try to approach them differently to make them feel fresh. For example, instead of covering how an injury happened, speak about its direct and indirect costs and how they affect employees and the business.
Invite leadership members to present: Employees will perk up when they see the leadership team getting involved in toolbox talks. This also allows the leadership team to show employees a different viewpoint while demonstrating their commitment to safety. In addition, providing different views on the same subjects can give employees a better understanding of the topic and create more engaging meetings.
Another benefit of including direct supervisors and managers is ensuring consistency of toolbox talks, especially if your workforce is geographically diverse or your organization has multiple shifts. Often one safety professional, or even one EHS department, can’t reach every employee at every site at the start of the shift for a toolbox talk. However, the EHS department can empower supervisors and managers to conduct them, making them a regular part of the workday for all workers.
Toolbox talks play a vital role in workplace safety programs. When implemented correctly, they can effectively reduce injuries, boost productivity, and improve workplace health and safety culture. Following the tips above to improve participation will help you get as much out of the process as possible. To learn more about the benefits of safety talks and how to pick the right topics, check out parts 2 and 3 of our toolbox talk series.