8 Ways to Improve Toolbox Talks and Hold Awesome Safety Meetings

Workers wearing hard hats and safety glasses in the middle of a toolbox talk focused on risk assessment

Nobody is perfect at delivering safety talks. Fortunately, there are lots of different ways to improve toolbox talks, and making incremental improvements will lead to much more effective  talks down the road.

Here are several ways to start holding better toolbox talks and tailgate meetings. Why not pick one and start working on it now? Chances are that you’ll start to see improvements in no time.

Spend Time Preparing

Preparation is one of the biggest determinants of quality. A well-prepared speaker is way more likely to be an effective speaker. Want to improve your toolbox talks? Start doing a better job of preparing for them.

Preparation doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as doing a few simple things:

  • decide in advance what you’ll talk about (yes, some people go into their safety talks without a clear idea of what the toolbox talk is going to be about)
  • download or write a toolbox talk
  • read through the talk once
  • think about how to make the talk engaging

If you want to get a bit deeper into preparation, start by thinking about any potential objections workers might have. Also consider any potential issues that could derail the talk, like workers showing up late or background activity being distracting. I also highly recommend making sure there’s a clear call to action at the end. If you’re using a free toolbox talk that you found online then there’s a good chance that there isn’t a clear call to action.

If this is the case, write one in yourself (more on that later) or use a toolbox talk that already has a built-in call to action.

Improve Presentation Skills

There aren’t too many people who became supervisors or managers because they have great public speaking skills. For many people, the best way to improve toolbox talks is to work on their presentation skills.

There are thousands of ways to become a better speakerway too many for me to cover here. But there are a few great places to start that will really make your safety talks better with just a bit of effort.

Make sure you’re speaking loudly, clearly and slowly. If you don’t have a booming voice or crystal-clear speech habits then work on these. At first it may feel like you’re talking too slowly or over-enunciating. That okay, it’s usually a sign that you’re getting it right.

Also try to make eye contact as much as possible. The worst thing you can do is stare at a piece of paper the whole time. Try to make it seem as conversational as possible.

Finally, use people’s names, ask follow-up questions, and don’t be afraid to go off-script. Treat a toolbox talk printout as a guideline, but it’s okay to deviate from it as long as the conversation is still about safety.

Keep Toolbox Talks Short

A lot of companies can make a big improvement in their toolbox talks by making just one change—making them shorter. It may seem a little paradoxical but less is definitely more when it comes to safety talks.

The idea behind the talks is to remind workers about a best practice or workplace hazard. There should be one or two key takeaways and that’s it. If toolbox talks drag on and on then the important points are likely to get lost.

There’s no magic length of time that you should adhere to. How long a toolbox talk should take is dictated by how many workers you’re speaking to, what you’re talking about and other factors specific to the workplace.

With that said, I suggest using 15 minutes as a benchmark. If that feels way too short for you then that probably means you’re trying to cram in too much material in your tailgate talks.

Right Toolbox Topic….

Toolbox talks are most effective if you’re getting the subject and timing right. This means talking about relevant toolbox topics at the most appropriate time in the workday.

Choosing a good toolbox topic is a matter of discussing the working conditions and hazards that employees have to navigate, the tools and equipment that they’ll use, and the behavioral tendencies (like taking shortcuts) and personal issues (like being tired) that might arise.

Consider the job that workers will be doing and the safety issues they’ll face. Thinking about it like this is usually enough to come up with a bunch of topics. If you feel like you’ve run out of ideas for what to talk about, consider looking to other sources for toolbox topics and inspiration for your next talk.

…At the Right Time

The best time to do a toolbox talk is at the start of a shift. It may seem obvious, and it’s when most companies conduct their talks. But some people try to squeeze in toolbox talks in at the end of the shift. This usually happens because supervisors have been told that they have to do the talks and they want to make sure they cross it off the to-do list.

Needless to say, at the end of the workday people have one thing on their mind—going home. They will have no attention or energy for a toolbox talk. And anything they hear will likely be forgotten by the time they return to work the next day.

In a few cases, it’s worth doing a toolbox talk in the middle of a shift. This includes situations where the on-site hazards or type of work being done shifts abruptly. Toolbox talks can brief workers on what’s changed or highlight a safety issue they didn’t need to think about previously.

Talk About a Wide Range of Toolbox Topics

If you’re conducting toolbox talks regularly then you’ve likely covered all the usual topics. Things might start to feel a little repetitive—and if toolbox talks seem stale to you then they’ll be downright boring to workers.

So mix it up by widening the range the range of toolbox topics.

You can do this in two ways. First, start looking for new places to get toolbox topics. Taking a look through a safety magazine (or some other source for topics) could spark an idea or remind you of something you haven’t covered.

Second, start talking about safety issues that could affect people away from the workplace. Workers are much more likely to be hurt at home than they are at work. And many of the issues, like eye injuries or taking safety shortcuts, work the same at home as they do on the job.

Using toolbox talks to discuss these issues in an at-home context will make workers think that you’re talking about something new while actually helping you reinforce a key workplace safety issue.

Don’t Mention OSHA (Not Even Once)

When I talk to safety pros about how to improve toolbox talks, I often issue them a challenge: go through an entire month’s worth of toolbox talks without referring to OSHA once.

Better yet, don’t mention safety rules at all. Workers will only remember a few things from each toolbox talk. Do you want them to memorize specific regulations and the exact phrasing for OSHA’s rules? Or do you want them to remember the general best practices and important hazards?

I’m not saying that OSHA rules aren’t importantof course they are. But they’re written by lawyers, for employers. Workers don’t need to know the exact codes to the letter in order to follow them (and some people will have a hard time understanding them anyway).

Here’s an example. OSHA Standard 1926.25(a) on housekeeping says: “During the course of construction, alteration, or repairs, form and scrap lumber with protruding nails, and all other debris, shall be kept cleared from work areas, passageways, and stairs, in and around buildings or other structures.”

That’s a real mouthful. Instead of drilling that long, complicated sentence into their heads, spend your toolbox talk having a conversation about why good housekeeping is important. Use various engagement techniques to help workers remember to keep the work area clean throughout the day. And discuss the types of things that are most likely to need to be tidied up in the workplace.

You can do all of that without referring to 1926.25(a) or any other safety standard. The talk will be much more effective if you leave OSHA out of it.

Document the Toolbox Talk

There’s no legal obligation to document toolbox talks and tailgate meetings. But you should do it anyway. Should it ever be required, documenting toolbox talks will allow you to demonstrate your due diligence, should that ever be required.

It also allows you to easily review the topics that you’ve already done and plan for future talks.

Using sign-in sheets isn’t required either but it’s a popular component of documenting toolbox talks. Many safety professionals like to get workers to sign an attendance sheet, showing that they’ve attended and (presumably) paid attention to the toolbox talk.

Sign-in forms are usually treated as a perfunctory last step at the end of a tailgate talk. But they can actually be a powerful way to reinforce a key learning point.

I like to add a question to the sign-in sheet that asks workers about what the talk was about, what they learned, or what the call to action was. Yes, this takes up more space and it means you’ll have to print a couple sign-in forms for each talk. It can also mean that it will take workers a little longer to sign it.

The benefit is worth the extra hassle, I promise. It forces workers to give one last bit of consideration to the toolbox talk. Sometimes, this is enough to get the toolbox topic to stick in their minds. It’s a great way to reinforce the talk immediately. It also shows just how serious you are about the things you had to say.

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