Our family has always been a traditional group, and at Christmas especially so. As well as a strict color scheme enforced by my wife (cream and gold with red accents if you're interested), this also manifests itself each year with the inclusion of a real Christmas tree. Generally of the spruce family, it stands about eight feet tall and fills the house with the subtle pine scent that everyone in our family associates with Christmas.

Its all very festive and wonderful until January 6th, when the mostly dead tree has to be extracted from the living room. My children are now grown, which means both that I have completed this task many times, and also that this year, they had all disappeared to the safety of their own homes by the time this job needed doing.

It's not a difficult job really – remove the tree from the living room, take it into the backyard to cut and strip it down so it is ready to be recycled and, finally, tidy up after myself. As I assembled the equipment required for the task, eye-protection, gloves, branch loppers, bow saw, vacuum cleaner, it struck me that this is a tool box talk that I've never had with my son. And I really should because, obviously, he's going to have to deal with this same job at some point. I say obviously because if he decides to put up an artificial tree in his own home, his mother will never talk to him again.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a tool box talk (sometimes referred to as a Tailgate Meeting), this is when it happens. Once we've gathered together everyone involved and all the tools we think will be needed, a tool box talk allows us to prepare for the task and ensure everyone's safe conduct during the job at hand. In addition, it's a training medium, allowing us to make sure that our team is learning something about their safety responsibilities to themselves and to each other during specific tasks. So, essentially, as I pottered about on a frosty January 6th, I constructed the outline of a tool box talk for the job of Christmas tree extraction.

Getting Started

There may well have been a comprehensive job brief before a work team assembles, but, then again, it might have been as simple as “come on son, let's take this tree out”, so the first component of a tool box talk should always be to ensure that everyone involved knows exactly what the task is and in what order the tasks are to be completed. For this task, there are three chronological phases: carry the tree outside, chop it down, clean up. So, while the tree is on the move during the first phase, we absolutely don't want someone between us and the backyard spreading out the component parts of a vacuum and cleaning the hallway. And who is doing what? Is carrying the tree a two man lift? If it is, who are the nominated people?

First, Find the Experts

For most jobs, there will be some specialist tools involved. Even for this simple Christmas tree task, we have branch loppers and a bow saw. If my son was not hiding from this particular piece of work, he would probably be keen to have a go with the bow saw, but I'm not sure he's ever used one before. Do we have time to teach him to use it safely? Or should the task be done by an expert? Even the lifting of the tree should be considered. Who has good lifting technique and is a suitable size to manhandle an eight-foot tree?

By the same token, it may be that you are not the expert at this task in this environment. Someone else in the team may be more experienced in this workplace or have performed this particular task more often than you – and that's why this is a toolbox talk and not a presentation or a show. Safety is a team responsibility; asking your experts to pass on equipment-specific safety information is a visible demonstration of this.

Then, Highlight a Topic

While the first considerations may be the "what" and "who" of the task, the most important part of the tool box talk is the safety focus of "how." Unlike our safety moments, the toolbox talk should be entirely focused on this job and how it will be safely completed. So ask yourself what safety elements of today's task you should be focusing on. In my case of the Christmas tree extraction, I might discuss lifting technique and eye protection. Why? Because in this case the two are mutually dependent. I might provide a short demonstration of a good lifting technique (bending from the knees, using thigh-muscles as the engine for the lift and keeping the load close to my center of gravity), but will also discuss that, based on my experience, a good lifting technique on a Christmas tree puts a considerable quantity of spiky pine foliage in one's face, so eye protection is a must. If you're struggling for a highlight topic, check out the resources offered below.

Check for Safety Equipment

Once you've highlighted a specific area, have a quick check around for safety equipment. Do all 'lifters' have eye protection? And what about gloves? Are there trip hazards on the route to the backyard?

Finally, Figure Out What People Know

The last, and arguably most important, question for the toolbox talk is about uncertainty. Is there anyone on the job who is being asked to do something they're not sure about or for which they have not been trained? If my son has never used a bow saw, I want to find out before he starts waving it around, not when he's bounced it off a knot in the tree and runs the teeth across the back of his hand.

A Good Tool Box Talk

It is useful to think of the toolbox talk as a highly focused version of the safety moment, allowing us to take a timely pause before the job begins to:

  • Provide continuous safety training to your team
  • Highlight job-specific hazards and constraints
  • Gain reassurance that everyone knows what the safe conduct of this job looks like

But remember, it's not a presentation or a lecture, it's a talk. Ask questions, invite others to offer opinions, get the view of your experts. The required end-state with all safety considerations is that we go home after work in the same healthy state we were in when we got there. It is the combined responsibility of the team to make that happen and the tool box talk gives us a forum to share that responsibility.