The One Guaranteed Way to Kill Toolbox Talks

This construction supervisor is wearing a red hard hat and pointing and yelling at someone.

I’ve talked to a lot of different people about how they run their toolbox talks. Nobody does things exactly the same way. But there’s one aspect that just about everyone has in common—their toolbox talks aren’t perfect.

It’s easy to make an error here of there in planning, writing or executing talks. That’s not exactly news and the truth of the matter is that toolbox talks can go wrong in a lot of different ways. So it’s not a surprise that few people get it exactly right.

Fortunately, it’s not usually a big deal. Most mistakes might limit the overall effectiveness of a toolbox talk but they won’t completely ruin it. For example, if you download a toolbox talk and don’t practice it ahead of time, you probably won’t do a great job in presenting it. But there’s still benefit to doing the talk.

But there’s one thing that supervisors and managers sometimes do that absolutely destroys the value of any toolbox talk. In fact, when I tell people about it I always refer to it as the one guaranteed way to kill a toolbox talk. So what is it?

It’s when toolbox talks are used to reprimand or discipline workers.

The reason why is pretty simple: nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a firing squad. The point of a toolbox talk is to increase safety awareness, to get people thinking about a specific safety issue and then keeping it in mind as they work… and scolding workers is an incredibly ineffective method of doing that.

The bottom line is that if a toolbox talk has a negative tone then it doesn’t matter what the toolbox talk is about or what you were hoping to accomplish with it—it won’t happen. The talk with be for naught.

Think about the last time someone got mad or yelled at you. How attentive were you afterward? Were you more aware of your surroundings and your actions? Or did it make you so frustrated or angry that you became distracted or less aware of what was happening around you?

Now ask yourself how eager you were to change your actions. Chances are your willingness and enthusiasm were pretty low.

The same thing happens when toolbox talks are used to tell workers what a crappy job they’ve been doing about safety.

You can mandate that toolbox talks happen. And you can require that people show up. You may even be able to get workers to pretend to be listening. But if you use a toolbox talk to reprimand workers then they’ll stop paying attention. Instead of thinking about safety, they’ll be thinking about how mad they are at having to go through the motions. They’ll become more resentful by the minute.

Instead of helping, the toolbox talk will have the opposite effect—it will have a seriously negative impact on workplace safety culture.

I know that a lot of supervisors and managers mean well. Their intention is to encourage workers to take safer actions and reduce the risk of injury. But even the faintest hint of berating workers will counteract all the good intentions in the world.

Let’s say there’s a handful of pulp and paper workers who sometimes forget to wear the proper flame-resistant clothing. They’re aware of the risk of a combustible dust explosion but that knowledge isn’t enough to get them to comply with PPE rules 100% of the time.

Their supervisor decides the next toolbox topic will be FR workwear. That’s a good idea, because safety talks are a great way to highlight compliance requirements.

However, the supervisor makes a big mistake—when he gathers his employees for a pre-shift talk, he starts by saying he can’t believe that people still aren’t wearing the proper safety gear. Even worse, he calls people out by name.

The effect is instantaneous. Employees feel attacked, they get their back up, and it puts up a divide between the supervisor and the workers. It makes them tune out the rest of the toolbox talk. Which is too bad, because by the time the supervisor starts discussing FR requirements, nobody is listening.

In this example, the supervisors did a few things incorrectly, all of which contributed to the toolbox doing more harm than good:

  • First, he made it negative by discussing poor performance in the past, rather than focusing on good safety performance in the future.
  • Second, he singled people out. You should only single workers out in a toolbox talk if you’re trying to encourage them to participate in a discussion.)
  • Third, he put the meat of the toolbox talk at the end rather than at the beginning.

If the goal of the toolbox talk was to get people to understand and follow rules for flame-resistant clothing then that should be the focus of the talk.  And it especially shouldn’t be something that comes after workers are dressed down for noncompliance.

None of this is to say that discipline, blunt words and corrective action aren’t necessary. They have a place in the safety ecosystem. But that place should be far, far away from toolbox talks.

For some folks, this is a major shift in how toolbox talks are conducted. It can take some getting used to. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make it easier to transition away from negative safety meetings.

For starters, it helps to be clear on what you’re trying to accomplish with a toolbox talk. Remember that admonishing workers will let them know what they’ve done wrong—but it won’t tell them how they should do it right next time. It will also cause them to shut down, closing them off from more positive interventions in the future.

It’s also useful to outline the talk ahead of time. (Even better, use a full script.) That way you’ll have something to follow and will be less likely to wing it and potentially veer into negative territory.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how you stop a negative tone from creeping into toolbox talks. What matters is that you keep things positive and goal-oriented. Because if you don’t then your toolbox talks might end up causing more problems than they fix.

2 thoughts on “The One Guaranteed Way to Kill Toolbox Talks

  1. Frederick Smith says:

    I found this post most helpful; I have observed a few toolbox talks being presented and issues of non-compliance were raised before the theme of the toolbox talk was arrived at. Thank you for this post.

  2. Jack Lees says:

    I send toolbox talks to our Superintendants and foreman on a weekly basis. I encourage everyone to engage their crews and coach them in a positive manner, thank you for your reinforcement in this post.

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