By Alex Morales, M. Ed.
The origin of the term “toolbox talk” is difficult to pinpoint. An early 1940s reference in the magazine Safety Education describes a play written by W. F. Caldwell titled, “Fairyland Weekly Toolbox Meeting,” as a novel way to present a weekly safety meeting.1 The term has clearly been used for a long time, but no one has been able to verify its first use or originator. Even anecdotes in the construction industry state it began on a construction site with a crew starting a shift and chatting about the day around their toolbox, but those tales have never come with much specificity. However, even as referenced by Caldwell, it is widely accepted that a toolbox talk is a safety-related meeting.
Today’s toolbox talk is a discussion targeting one specific safety issue. Other terms have been used in the construction industry to mean the same thing, such as tailgate meeting, safety short or crew briefing, but toolbox talk is the enduring term we use in the precast concrete industry. It is a short, informal meeting with employees completing the actual work. While daily project progress meetings may involve owners, management or office employees, toolbox talks are focused on plant-floor employees directly involved in the precast concrete production process.
Plan the toolbox talk
Toolbox talks are meant to be informal but, if you’re leading the talk, don’t let the informality fool you. You must still plan for a toolbox talk like you prepare for every business meeting. That might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to be clear about the desired outcome of your toolbox talk in order to achieve it. If you want to ensure your crew understands the dangers of airborne silica, then you need to read the respirable silica standard first. If you want to teach everyone how to climb a ladder safely, then consider identifying someone who will demonstrate proper three-point contact while ascending or descending an actual ladder. If there’s an enforcement deadline looming for a new OSHA rule, obtain the new OSHA mandate to distribute. If you know an industry video clip that can show an objective view of something happening in your plant, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your toolbox talk.
The point is, don’t wing it. Your employees will spot your lack of preparedness immediately and will take that to mean the topic isn’t important. Know what you’re going to do, say, show or distribute prior to the meeting and plan to do it in the proper amount of time. Toolbox talks should be relatively short, 15 minutes or less, so plan accordingly. You need to get the point across, give your crew time to talk about it and get them back to their jobs knowing to work safer. If you have a lot of content to cover, consider making it into two parts and save some material for the next meeting.
Talk, don’t tell
Don’t let your toolbox talk turn into the dreaded toolbox “tell”. Yes, time is limited – toolbox talks are usually held at the very beginning of the day – so it’s not necessarily the ideal time to have long dialogue. This is more reason to plan properly and ensure you don’t have too much material to cover.
In addition to portioning down your content, you have to be comfortable having a conversation with a group. It is recommended not to ask closed-ended questions. For example, “Does that make sense?” might be important to verify, but it’s also a question with a one-word answer.
Identifying your toolbox talks as a time for conversation isn’t just a good idea, it’s sound adult learning theory. Adults simply learn better when they speak about their experiences rather than when they listen to yours. There are better ways to ensure your team understands the content of a toolbox talk than just asking a yes/no question:
- Tell us about your training last week on the new OSHA standard.
- How can you recognize a potential silica issue?
- What can you do when you see someone without PPE?
The idea behind preventing a toolbox “tell” is the facilitator should not be the one doing the talking. Your work was to plan the content. Your role during the toolbox talk is to facilitate conversation … and listen. Employing active listening techniques is key when you facilitate a toolbox talk, so you don’t talk the whole time. Two key principles of active listening are deferring judgement and responding appropriately. Deferring judgement is important because there’s no better way to sabotage your meeting than by making someone feel they’ve said something wrong. Preserve the safe zone of your toolbox talk by inviting all perspectives to the conversation and validating them all as important. Plus, be authentic yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t guess. Saying something untrue or making the conversation uncomfortable will deter someone from participating in a future toolbox talk
Active listening is important to facilitate healthy conversation and respond appropriately to your crew. Your plan should be for a 15-minute, stand-up meeting to include dialogue. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak. If someone is dominating the conversation, invite someone else to participate. Ask probing or clarifying questions about employee comments as they pertain to the topic of the toolbox talk. That doesn’t just prove you’re listening, but it also encourages focused conversation and increased participation.
Increased participation during a toolbox talk is great, but you must manage it in order to stick to the allotted 10-15 minutes and get the crew out onto the plant floor to start or return to their shift. It’s a delicate dance to make sure everyone speaks, respond appropriately to comments to show you’re listening and end the meeting on time.
The best way to master that dance is to practice. You might start with a simple outline:
6:00 a.m. – 6:04 a.m. Announce new OSHA standard.
6:04 a.m. – 6:14 a.m. Ask what is crew doing now. Ask crew what they think they can change to comply. Take notes for implementation plan.
6:14 a.m. – 6:15 a.m. Thank crew, sign attendance sheet and close toolbox talk.
Toolbox talks don’t have to be daunting, impersonal meetings. In fact, they need to be pertinent discussions about important safety issues. If the team has questions that are beyond the scope of your
planned discussion, table it until a future toolbox talk. There’s no better way to ensure an engaged audience then when participants chose the topic to discuss.
Alex Morales, M. Ed., is NPCA’s director of workforce development.
1 Education Division, National Safety Council, (1944). Safety Education: A Magazine of the Good Adventure, Volumes 24-25, p.71.