Delivering toolbox talks doesn’t have to be complicated. But to get them right, you need to do several things before, during and after each toolbox talk. Here are several ways that a safety talk can go off the rails—make any of these fives mistakes and you’ll be missing out on a lot of the value in toolbox meetings.
And if you read to the end, I’ve even summarized two essential takeaways to help you avoid these problems in your next toolbox talk.
1. Have a Good Preparation
There’s never enough time to really get ready for a toolbox talk. I get it, I really do. That’s why I try to write the ones at Pro Toolbox Talks so that they require as little prep as possible.
But you always need to do at a little preparation before you start talking. This is especially true if you’re using a free toolbox talk that you downloaded from the Internet. Preparation should include:
- reading the talk through once
- anticipating objections
- thinking of questions you can ask to encourage participation
- confirming what the call to action is
If you have time, you should also practice reading the talk out loud.
It’s worth noting that if you’ve written your own toolbox talk then you’ve likely done most of the prep already, because you had to think of all these things as you were writing it. But it’s still worth taking a few minutes to anticipate potential objections, and refreshing yourself with the talk if you wrote it a while ago.
2. Information issues
There are several ways that information troubles can derail a toolbox talk. The most obvious one is giving out the wrong information. It should go without saying that anyone giving a toolbox talk should be knowledgeable about the safety procedures that are being discussed. For example, if you’re giving a toolbox talk about the safest way to work with propane then you definitely need to know the ins and outs of propane hookups, transportation and tools.
But there are other types of information in many toolbox talks. Are you citing the right OSHA standard? Do you know the proper company regulations? Are you talking to workers about the same tools and processes that they use in the field? If you discuss where tools, first aid kits, PPE or forms are located, do you know the correct location and have you confirmed that the items are properly stocked? These are all common issues that supervisors can inadvertently provide false or misleading information about in a toolbox talk.
It’s also possible to provide too much or too little info. There’s no need to read pages of safety rules out loud—people will stop listening after the first few sentences. There’s also no point in holding a talk where you say something like, “We have lots of hand injuries lately so be safe out there.” Employees will be left wondering, “Be safe how?” The goal is to provide enough detail that workers know exactly what you want them to do, without talking for so long that they become bored and distracted.
3. Improve Toolbox talk delivery skill
It doesn’t matter how good a toolbox talk is if it’s delivered poorly. Sometimes the person giving a toolbox talk simply lacks the necessary communication skills. But more often, they have the skills but something compromises the delivery.
Maybe it’s a bad day. Maybe it’s a lack of preparation or confidence. Maybe it’s that the person giving the talk doesn’t understand that they need to put in an effort to deliver a strong presentation, because it can lead to better attention during the tailgate talk, better retention of the talk afterwards, and better safety outcomes as a result.
Taking the time to prepare for the talk is one way to cure delivery problems. But for many supervisors and managers, a bit more education and/or practice is required to improve the overall quality of toolbox talks. Sometimes even a tiny bit of effort can go a long way, like spending a few minutes watching a couple YouTube videos on how to be a better public speaker.
4. Increase Toolbox talk engagement
A toolbox talk is only effective if it makes workers safer. That means it has to make them think or act differently. And for that to happen, workers need to be engaged.
Unfortunately, engagement doesn’t occur on its own. In my experience, many supervisors are daunted by the idea of safety engagement—it can feel like a big, abstract concept. When it comes to toolbox talks, I think of it like this: engagement = participation.
If you can get workers to actively participate in toolbox talks, they’ll be much more engaged in whatever you’re talking about because they’ll be part of the conversation. And when you focus on participation, it’s a lot easier to see how you can make sure things go right.
There are a few engagement tricks that I like to use in toolbox talks, including:
- holding raise-your-hand polls
- asking pertinent questions
- conducting follow-along demos
- sharing personal stories (including my own)
- mixing up the format of talks to keep things fresh
Workers are also much more likely to participate if they believe the talk is relevant to them. The toolbox talk also has to be presented in an engaging manner. That means you have to choose the topic wisely and talk to workers, not at them.
5. Have a follow-up plan
It’s never enough to give only one toolbox talk, no matter how amazing or inspiring you think it is. If you just deliver one toolbox talk a year—or do toolbox talks infrequently or on an irregular basis—then you’re missing most of the benefits of toolbox talks.
Each toolbox talk will temporarily boost employee’s awareness. But that awareness can quickly fade away as competing priorities push it to the back of people’s minds. Conducting regular toolbox talks allows you to string together a series to temporary awareness boosts into a larger, stronger safety net.
It also demonstrates that safety is important. Doing one-off toolbox talks (or only doing them sporadically) will make it seem like they’re either unimportant or like they’re the latest “flavor of the month” that will eventually be replaced with something else. Conversely, doing toolbox talks on a set schedule—like once a week or before every shift—will show that you’re committed to keeping safety top of mind for everyone.
I’ve had plenty of crew leaders and safety managers tell me about other ways that toolbox talks can go off the rails. (I’ve experienced a few of them myself too.) But most of the other problems that can happen to toolbox talks are specific to a situation, topic or worksite. The five that I’ve outlined above are a lot more common and they can occur to safety managers, shift supervisors and anyone else tasked with giving a toolbox talk to workers.
In this blog post I’ve tried to include a couple solutions to each of these problems. As you can see, there’s no magic bullet that will fix all these issues, but there are a few prevailing themes that you should pay attention to. The first is preparation and practice. Be prepared to deliver each safety talk, and do a dry run ahead of time if you can. Regular practice can also help inexperienced, nervous or unskilled presenters get better at delivering the talks.
The second is to focus on the outcome. Toolbox talks are supposed to make people safer. For that to happen, the talks need to get more participation (which is really engagement). And they also need to happen regularly. That means no epic safety meetings—more short and interactive toolbox talks will be much more effective.