A Christmas Story: Why a Toolbox Talk Should Precede Even the Simplest Tasks
Toolbox talks provide timely opportunities for team training, to promote team safety responsibilities, and to emphasize key safety messages.
My family has always been a traditional group, especially when it comes to Christmas. Not only does my wife enforce a strict color scheme (cream and gold with red accents, if you're interested), but we would sooner have no Christmas tree than an artificial one. Our Christmas trees are generally of the spruce family, stand about eight feet tall, and – this is the crucial part – fill the house with a subtle scent of pine that everyone in my family associates with Christmas.
It's all every festive and wonderful. And then we get to January 6th. By the end of the first week of January, it's time to extract the mostly dead tree from the living room. The fine spruce has transformed from festive wonder into a bothersome chore.
My children are now grown, which means that they will be disappearing to the safety of their own homes long before this job needs to be done.
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 then tidy up. But the last time I assembled the equipment I needed to dispose of the tree – eye protection, work gloves, branch loppers, bow saw, vacuum cleaner – it struck me that this is a toolbox talk I've never had with my son. And it's one we really all should have because, obviously, our kids are going to have to dispose of their own Christmas trees at some point.
If you're not familiar with the concept of a toolbox 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 we'll need for the job. A toolbox talk allows us to prepare for the task and ensure everyone's safe conduct while completing the job at hand. It's also a training medium, allowing us to make sure our team is learning something about their safety responsibilities (to themselves and to each other) during specific tasks.
As I pottered about on a frosty January 6th, I came up with an outline for a Christmas tree extraction toolbox talk. I'm going to share it with you as a good overview for toolbox talks in general.
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 toolbox talk should always be to make sure 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
Most jobs will require some specialized tools. Even for this simple Christmas tree task, we'll need 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 I have time to teach him to use it safely? Or should the task be done by an expert? And what about lifting the tree? Who has good lifting technique and is a suitable size to manhandle an eight-foot conifer?
Of course, you may not be the expert at this task in this environment. Someone else in your team might 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. Safety is a team responsibility; asking your experts to pass on equipment-specific safety information is a visible demonstration of this (for related reading, see You Should Start Building a Solid Safety Program and Culture - Immediately).
Next, Highlight a Topic
We've figured out the "what" and the "who" of the task. Now, we get to the most important part of the toolbox talk: how to do the task safely.
Unlike safety moments, toolbox talks should be entirely focused on this job and how it will be completed safely. So, ask yourself what safety elements of today's task you should be focusing on.
In my case, I might discuss lifting technique and eye protection. 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.
Check for Safety Equipment
Once you've highlighted a specific area, have a quick check around for safety equipment. Do all the 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 question for the toolbox talk has to do with 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.
What Makes 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
- Confirm that everyone knows how to safely do the job
But remember, it's not a presentation or a lecture; it's a talk. Ask questions, invite others to offer opinions, get input from your experts. The goal of any safety initiative is to make sure we all go home in the same healthy state we were in when we got to work. It is the combined responsibility of the team to make that happen and the toolbox talk gives us a forum to share that responsibility.
So, when you're dragging that Christmas tree out of your living room in a couple of weeks, take a moment to think about how a quick hustle with your workers could improve the safety of your workplace.
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