Writer’s block is real and it doesn’t just happen to writers—safety managers and supervisors can suffer from it too. It can feel almost impossible to come up with new toolbox topics, especially If you’ve been discussing the same safety issues for years.
Personally, I think this might be the most underrated problem in running consistent toolbox talks. Coming up with new ideas week in, week out is a real challenge.
I’ve created a list of places that are great sources for toolbox topics. I’ve also included a few tips on how to keep safety talks from becoming repetitive. (Because if coming up with new topics is the #1 underrated problem then making sure each talk engaging is #1A.)
Near-miss reports are a rich source of material for toolbox talks in several ways.
First, examining what near-miss reports are about can let you know which topics should be most urgently covered in talks. For example, if the number of near-miss reports on housekeeping issues is steadily creeping up then it’s probably worth doing a toolbox talk or two on the subject. This will get workers thinking about the problem, remind them about best practices and, hopefully, head off potential injuries in the future.
Depending on the data that is captured in near-miss reports, you may also be able to identify issues that you should discuss but that don’t come to mind when you think of the usual toolbox topics. Do most near-misses occur in the last couple hours of a shift? If so, it might be worth talking about the impact of fatigue or highlighting the times and places where most incidents are likely to occur.
Second, near-miss reports can end up writing a significant portion of your toolbox talks for you. Teaching points, scenario details and even a play-by-play of safety scenarios can all be lifted straight from good near-miss reports and inserted into toolbox talks.
The best part about taking this approach is knowing that the details you use in a safety talk will be relevant, because they came from a real-life example. There is a potential downside to doing this, though. It also applies to using incident reports for toolbox talks so read on because I’ve noted it below.
Everything that I said about near-miss reports also applies to incident reports. One of the most popular types of toolbox talks among my subscribers is scenario-based talks. These talks typically present a situation in which something happens to someone, and then workers have to analyze what went wrong and/or what could have been done differently. (There are a lot of variations but they usually have the same broad structure.)
A note of caution here: make sure you remove identifying details from any stories that you pull from incident reports. If a toolbox talk is clearly about a specific person then it can cause them to feel chastised or blamed. In extreme cases, it can even cause workers to report fewer incidents.
To be safe, use incident (and near-miss) reports as a source of topics but alter enough of the specific details so that the focus stays on the safety message and not the people involved in the original incident.
If you’re struck on what your next toolbox topic should be, crack open a safety magazine. The articles, headlines and even ads can quickly spark ideas for what to talk about.
Most big safety publications like Occupational Health & Safety and EHS Today cater to a wide audience and you’re bound to find something that’s broadly applicable to your workplace. I find that magazines are an especially good cure for I-just-don’t-know-where-to-start syndrome.
It’s worth mentioning that you don’t actually need the physical magazine. Digital editions or daily newsletters work just as well and are often easier to access via your smartphone.
A lot of the toolbox topics that can be pulled from safety publications won’t be directly relevant to your workplace. I’ll address this more below, but for now, I’ll say that it’s better to get a toolbox talk on any topic done than it is to keep searching for the perfect toolbox topic and end up doing fewer talks or no talks at all.
In a recent article for Safety + Health, I talked about how toolbox talks can be used to support safety training and provide timely reminders. The goal is to re-emphasize key learning points and stave off as much post-training forgetfulness as possible.
In the article, I sketched out a hypothetical schedule for safety talks for the month following forklift compliance training:
A few days [after training], host a toolbox talk that highlights the biggest challenges of operating a forklift safely. A week later, ask forklift drivers about the steps they should take to watch for pedestrians. You also could initiate a discussion on safe driving practices or what workplace hazards they would tell a new forklift operator to look for.
Then, a month or so after the original safety training, turn a toolbox talk into a quiz that asks workers about the major takeaways from the training. If it’s clear that some elements have been forgotten, these issues can be revisited in […] another toolbox talk.
This is a great way to stop the safety training from going in one ear and out the other. It also lets you get more mileage out of a single toolbox topic.
But if you want to make your toolbox talks as useful as possible then you can’t just regurgitate talking points from the safety training. Instead, build a new talk around each key learning objective.
Ideally, each talk should be slightly different than the next. As you can see in the quote above, the first talk highlighted major challenges, the second was a Q&A about a specific issue, and the third was a quiz. This will keep people more engaged and improve the outcomes of each talk.
According to the National Safety Council’s injury statistics, there’s a huge discrepancy in where unintentional fatalities happen. Over 145,000 people were killed at home, meaning that 17 times more deaths occur away from the workplace than they do on the job. (And that only counts unintentional injuries that result in a fatality.)
If we truly care about worker safety then we need to do whatever we can to protect them where they get hurt the most frequently—at home. Toolbox talks can contribute to that goal by raising awareness of common hazards that people may encounter away from work.
Here’s a few examples of toolbox topics for off-the-job safety:
- driving in poor weather conditions
- wearing PPE and safe tool use during home renos
- ladder use
- back safety techniques and motivation
- common electrical risks around the house
It may seem like these toolbox talks have nothing to do with workplace safety. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The primary goal is to keep employees safe when they punch out at the end of the day. But at-home toolbox topics almost always have a tie-in to safety at work. Let’s take a look at this list again, with related workplace issues noted in bold:
- driving in poor weather conditions (driving work vehicles)
- wearing PPE during home renos (best practices for PPE and tool use)
- ladder use (working at heights)
- back safety techniques and motivation (safe lifting and fewer workplace back injuries)
- common electrical risks around the house (LOTO and electrical safety)
There’s a lot to gain from talking about at-home safety in your next talk. This is one of the most effective, and most underused, approaches to toolbox topics. So make sure you’re not missing out.
Pick a Toolbox Topic, Any Topic
I frequently hear the same lament from managers and supervisors who do regular toolbox talks. It goes something like this: “I’ve covered every single aspect of the job in safety talks. Now I’m out of toolbox topics. What do I do?”
There’s two different solutions here. The first is to go back and talk about the same things again, but from a different angle. In most cases, it’s not the toolbox topic that gets stale, it’s the messaging behind it.
When I write toolbox talks, I use a variety of different ways of presenting information and engaging workers in a discussion. This keeps things from getting repetitive while still covering essential topics regularly.
The second solution is to pick any topic, even if it doesn’t directly relate to your workplace. Seriously. If there’s one lesson to take away from this entire blog post, it’s this: don’t stress out over which toolbox topics to cover. You can talk about almost anything (as long as it’s safety-related, of course).
Any conversation about safety is good, because it will get workers thinking about safe behaviors and how to manage risk. In short, it will increase their safety awareness.
There’s another benefit to talking about toolbox topics that aren’t about the work at hand—it will keep workers on their toes. If you discuss the same things all the time, it’s easy for everyone (including you) to go through toolbox talks on autopilot.
But talking about something new will force employees to actually think about the topic. I’ve even heard of some cases where workers take it as a compliment. To them, it means that they know their safety stuff and are up to the challenge of safety issues outside their wheelhouse.
One of the reasons I started writing safety talks is to help managers, supervisors and others who have a hard time coming up with new toolbox topics. Let me know in the comments below what troubles you have getting ideas for toolbox talks. If you have any go-to places where you get toolbox topics then share that too.