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Toolbox Talks: Communicating Safety Is A Two-Way Street 

Ask The Experts | By | 10 Aug 2022 | 5 minute read

Communication with the workforce always scores quite low in employee surveys. However means communication is achieved—e-mails, Zoom calls, training sessions, posters—it can never be enough. 

The proverb “Tell me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand” is a useful one in Health and Safety (H&S) management. The last part is particularly striking—after all, involving the workforce in the communication process is a very powerful tool. This can be achieved using various toolbox talk topics relevant to the business. 

There are various toolbox talk templates available that can be used to deliver different types of toolbox safety talks.

A Look Into the History of Toolbox Talks

Toolbox safety talks originated in the construction industry when site managers would start the shifts with safety announcements and operational requirements whilst standing on a toolbox. This was changed when they realized the supervisor was unsafely working at heights, so they moved to ‘around a toolbox health and safety talk’.

Toolbox Talks: Then and Now

Originally, toolbox safety talks were a ‘talking to’ or an ’instruction’. However, I’ve witnessed times when construction safety toolbox talks were an absolute roasting of the workforce for no good reason. They can be seen as routes to grow the blame culture within safety, told along the lines of ‘I’m telling you this because you’ve done something wrong’. 

Often, it ends with asking front liners to sign a piece of paper to cover the business in case an accident occurred and to prove that information had been shared. 

Toolbox Conversations in Practice

The quote ‘Tell me, I forget…’ reminds me of one meeting I attended before. Once, I sat in a morning shift meeting at a new company I’d joined where the toolbox safety talk discussion occurred. The shift manager simply read the script provided by an H&S advisor, and the meeting moved on. 

Afterwards, I took the time to speak to the employees and asked them what the toolbox talk topic was about less than an hour ago. Only one of the fifteen I spoke to could remember. That one person was the Union Safety Representative.

Still, toolbox safety talks were adopted by various industries as an opportunity to raise safety awareness. Since then, they have developed into safety alerts, lessons learned, stand-downs, safety talks, and more. They have become a vital methodology in communication.

Building a Progressive Safety Culture

The role and image of the H&S professional have been changing over the last few years. No longer are they categorized as the clipboard-wielding, legislation-spewing, finger-wagging individual. The modern H&S professional is from a more diverse, innovative, curious, creative ilk who haven’t ‘just fallen’ into the profession but chosen H&S as their first career. 

This progressive thought process has brought positive developments in the world of safety toolbox talks such as those listed below. 

Encouraging Safety Conversations

For one, H&S professionals have taken the opportunity to start conversations. Having an open forum to discuss safety aspects openly takes the ‘Tell me, I forget…’ instruction to the next level and helps develop a proactive culture within a business.

Discussing Topics that Matter

Relevant toolbox talk topics are also vital to improving engagement. Previously identified internal risks and safe working practices should take priority. As data has become a driving force within all aspects of business, H&S isn’t being left out. 

Toolbox talks topics can be identified through the following means (and the list can go on and on!): 

Seeking Information from Various Sources

Learning lessons from other companies can sometimes be challenging to discuss, especially when there are fatalities involved. As an H&S professional, I have subscribed to some reputable news websites that inform me of safety court cases that have resulted in fines and imprisonment. They can be hard to read but extremely useful to learn from. 

The information can also start conversations, beginning with questions such as:

  • What if that happened here? 
  • How can we avoid this accident experienced by a similar company? 
  • How are we already avoiding this type of accident?

Looking Beyond Traditional Communication Tools

As the workplace became more diverse and the world became smaller, communicating toolbox safety talks in only one language has become challenging. 

Using imagery and simple ‘non-verbal’ communication already poses a challenge to H&S professionals. There can only be so many Homer Simpson Safety Posters that can be rechurned, and, frankly, they’ve had their day! 

Fortunately, plenty of resources are now available at our disposal. For example, European authorities developed a wide range of free videos with a new cartoon character called Napo at www.napofilm.net. They include visual information on common hazards in the workplace across various industries. The videos can raise safety awareness in a mildly comical way and help start conversations.

Effectively Digitising Toolbox Talks

Furthermore, businesses can deliver toolbox safety talks directly into the hands of the front line using iAuditor by SafetyCulture’s Heads Up feature as a toolbox talk platform, especially whilst utilizing Free Seats with Premium. Images, PDF documents, and videos can be attached and users can acknowledge and comment on what they have read or seen—a true testament to the proverb ‘…show me, I remember…’ 

From the comments received on these digitized toolbox safety talks, it can be determined if further training is needed. This endeavor can be completed using the micro-learning tool, EdApp by SafetyCulture.

Moving Towards the Future of Communication

The aspect of a two-way communication route is the most effective way of developing a positive, proactive safety culture and resulting in a safer workplace. Here are a few takeaways to help your business continuously improve and maximize the effectiveness of its toolbox talks.

Empower the Front Lines

As mentioned earlier, the H&S manager would lead or provide information and toolbox talk topics to discuss at toolbox safety talks. But why not take this to another level—ask the workforce to lead the conversation, involve senior leaders, and bring in experts outside the company? 

These strategies provide frontline workers with the opportunity to lead the toolbox conversation instead of just replying to the speakers. After all, they are at the front line and will have a deeper understanding of everyday work. 

Keep Pace with the Present Times

Keeping up with the most recent external trends is also key to supporting the way communication is delivered in the workplace. However, the balancing act of engaging with a modern workforce that uses technology every day without alienating the more experienced generations will be a challenge. 

I’m not suggesting that we communicate safety messages and have toolbox talks through TikTok (though, why not?). But in the realm of safety, what matters is how we manage change and stay relevant. 

Make it a Two-Way Street

The quote, ‘…involve me, I understand’ also goes two ways. Don’t assume that the H&S professional knows everything (if they say they do, they are lying!). Involve them in the day-to-day operations, don’t just bring them in when things go wrong or use them as a box to be ticked in an organization chart. 

If they can understand the operational process, they can support the business in developing suitable toolbox talk topics to ensure the safety of the workforce is best in class.

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SafetyCulture staff writer

Tiffany Argent

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