The “Toolbox Talk” and coaching
By Greg Chase
Greg Chase is owner of Greg Chase Consulting and Training in Spencer, Mass., and a past chairman of NPCA.
Great companies have excellent safety records. That’s because excellent safety records don’t just happen, they are the result of a commitment to comprehensive safety training and coaching. A vital part of any successful safety training program is the “toolbox talk.” Effective toolbox talks include three key parts: structure, planning and employee participation, and delivery.
It is important that we recognize the need to commit to safety at all levels. This commitment includes a structure and a schedule for toolbox talks to send a positive message to employees regarding the importance of safety. Therefore, it is important to schedule these talks for the same day and time each week and then schedule production accordingly. This sends a positive message that management is committed to safety and that safety is important. When we hold toolbox talks at the convenience of the production schedule, sometimes without notice, it is viewed as a “filler” by employees, something with little importance, and they often develop an indifferent attitude and approach to learning to work safely. It is far better to schedule the toolbox talk for the same day and time each week and stick to it.
Allow enough time, usually 15 to 20 minutes, to conduct the toolbox talk. Adults learn best when the sessions are less than 20 minutes. In addition, retention is usually limited to five key points or less. If the subject matter is lengthy or includes more than five key points, then spread that topic into two or more consecutive weeks.
Start your toolbox talk on time and end it on time. Punctuality on your part and on the employee’s part sets a positive tone for training. Ask employees to be on time. If employees come in late, speak with them after the session, express your disappointment and ask them to be on time next week. Develop a structure for toolbox talks that includes discipline and punctuality, which then leads to a structured and positive learning environment.
Always maintain control. Meet in the lunchroom/break room or a place with no distractions (not the plant floor). Get everyone’s attention before you start and keep their attention. Safety is sacred. Everyone’s attitude toward safety should be focused and serious. Continued poor behavior should not be tolerated. Either poor behavior goes away, or the employee has to go away.
Commitment to maintaining a solid training structure will in turn create a positive learning environment, which makes effective teaching and learning a reality.
Planning and employee participation
Planning for your toolbox talk is very important if you want the session to be effective. An unplanned toolbox talk will be viewed as weak with little substance; it will not be delivered effectively, and little training will take place. Planning takes time, sometimes up to four times the length of the toolbox talk itself. If you plan well, it reduces your stress and your nervousness, because you will be more comfortable with the subject matter. You will be more relaxed and you will conduct a more effective talk. Remember to include employee participation.
Learn your subject matter well, and plan your talk to include these key points:
- Have an attention-getting opening statement. You have about 30 seconds to get their attention, so open with a slam dunk. Example: “Last year 110 workers in the United States fell off ladders and died.”
- Develop two to five key points you want them to remember. Mention the key points early on and repeat them near the end of the talk. Make every effort to have each employee leave the room having learned the key points.
- Use props, and conduct activities and/or demonstrations. Props include examples of PPE, lockout tags and locks, fire extinguishers, lifting anchors, ladders, etc. These props help to keep your hands busy, which reduce nervousness, and allow your employees to participate in hands-on learning. Demonstrations can include inspecting a ladder, using torches (in the plant), lifting properly, etc. Adults learn better when they can participate in these activities.
- Design participation and interaction into your talk. Think of open-ended questions you can ask, and ask them often – every two to three minutes. Information is better retained when you use immediate reinforcement. Use first names of the employees, and use their names first when asking a question. Example: “Bob, what do you do first when selecting a ladder?” Listen to the answers and give positive recognition and reinforcement. Remember, there are no wrong answers; give encouragement for each answer, and ask the group for additional comments until the answer is correct.
- End the toolbox talk with another attention-getting statement and repeat the key points, or ask them to repeat the key points. The objective is to have them leave the room understanding the specific safety steps and being able to implement them at once.
Adults learn and retain 7 percent based on the material presented and 93 percent based on the way the message is delivered. It is important, therefore, that we spend time learning and practicing to be a better presenter and not speak at our audience, but speak with them.
Here are a few basic tips that can help:
- Practice raising and lowering the tone of your voice. A constant droning voice will cause your group to zone out or daydream. Changing both the tone and volume of your voice will help to keep their attention.
- Smile! Not all the time, but when appropriate. Smiling helps make your audience more comfortable with you and with the learning process. They are more at ease and more apt to participate and interact.
- Stay on your feet and move around the room, but always face your audience. Never sit at a table, a desk, behind a lectern, or stand in one spot. Your group will be more involved if you are animated and not stationary. When they move their eyes to follow you, they are more alert, they listen better and are more apt to be ready with answers when you ask questions.
- Maintain good eye contact. If you look directly at them when you speak, they will be more focused on your message. Eyes that wander cause minds to wander.
- Ask open-ended questions, listen to the answers and give positive reinforcement for their efforts. Remember, no matter how strange the answer, an employee’s comments have value to them. Always give credit for those comments. Your encouragement will lead to more participation and more interaction.
All of these tips take time to develop. As with anything, you will get better with practice. The investment in time and practice is well worth it. Toolbox learning improves dramatically when you make a good delivery and when employees participate in the process.
Coaching is key. An industry leader once said to me, “In order to have effective learning, it will be necessary that we develop a culture of training and coaching.” Sometimes I summarize it by saying, “Training is teaching, coaching is learning.” Surveys say that with good training we can expect employees to retain 15 percent to 20 percent of what they are taught, and the other 80 percent to 85 percent is learned when we coach effectively.
Coaching is the follow-up portion of the training. It is the time our production leadership spends on the plant floor reinforcing the training and conducting retraining when necessary. Sometimes employees need to try a new skill four to six times before they master it. Supervisors, foremen, superintendents, plant managers and safety directors all need to coach and do the right follow-up to ensure that our toolbox training time is well spent and that our employees really do master the key steps in working safely. This will result with a “win” for everybody.
Think of training as the teaching of how to safely and successfully accomplish a specific task. Coaching is the continuous reinforcement of correct procedures to be used during the regular work day. Both training and coaching are important and, done correctly and consistently, will reward you with better safety records, more positive production results and happier, safer employees.