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A Christmas Story: Why a Toolbox Talk Should Precede Even the Simplest Tasks

By Del Stevens
Published: December 24, 2018
Presented by AD Safety Network
Key Takeaways

Toolbox talks provide timely opportunities for team training, to promote team safety responsibilities, and to emphasize key safety messages.

Source: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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), but we would sooner have no Christmas tree than put up 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 very festive and wonderful.

But then we get to the 6th of January and it's not so wonderful anymore. It's time to extract the mostly dead tree from the living room and dispose of it. That fine spruce has transformed from a festive wonder into a bothersome chore.


And it's something I'll have to tackle on my own. Now that my children are all grown up, they will be disappearing to the safety of their own homes long before the tree needs to be hauled away.

It's not a difficult job, really – remove the tree from the living room, cut and strip it down in the backyard 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 our kids will 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: before starting the job and once we've gathered everybody who will be involved in it.

It only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes, but it's an opportunity to prepare for the task and to ensure that everyone carries it out safely. It's sort of like a mini training session, allowing you to teach your team something about particular hazards and the safe work procedures that keep them those hazards from becoming incidents.

As I puttered about on that frosty January morning, I came up with an outline for a Christmas tree extraction toolbox talk. I'm going to share it with you because I think it can act as a good overview for toolbox talks in general - and might just come in handy the next time you have to de-Christmas your living room.

Give a Rundown of the Tasks

There may have been a comprehensive job brief before assembling a work team. There may have just been a quick summary of the work - "sort some boxes in the warehouse and try not to let any of them tip over."

In my case, it's a simple "come on son, let's take this tree out."

At any rate, every toolbox talk should start by getting everyone up to speed. Run through the steps of the tasks in order, make sure everyone involved knows exactly what it involves, and encourage the employees to ask for clarification if needed.

For the task I'm preparing for, 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 assembling the component parts of a vacuum and cleaning the hallway.

This is also when you clarify everyone's roles. Who is doing what? Is carrying the tree a two-man lift or can one person do it safely? If it only takes one person to carry it out, what should the other be doing while that task is being completed?

(Learn more in Safe Lifting: Don't Put Your Back on the Line)

Find Your Experts

Some jobs can be done by anyone with a tool belt and a few hours of safety training. But in many cases, you'll need some specialized tools.

That's true even when dealing with the Christmas tree. A hammer and a few screwdrivers won't get you anywhere - you'll need branch loppers and a bow saw.

If my son was actually here and not relaxing at home, he would probably be keep to have a go with the bow saw. But that would raise an important question: has he ever used one before? If not, do I have time to teach him to use it safely? Would it be better to leave the task to an expert?

Of course, you may not the expert needed to carry out the task. Someone else in your team might have more experience, relevant training, or the right qualifications. And that's precisely why this is a toolbox talk and not a toolbox presentation. Safety is a team responsibility and you should be figuring out who is best suited to handle each task, or asking someone with more experience with a piece of equipment for advice on how to use it.

(Learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture)

Highlight a Topic

Step one gave us the what of the task. Step two was all about the who. Now, we get to the most important part of the toolbox talk: the how.

How should the task be carried out? What procedures are needed to avoid injury or exposure to harmful substances? Are there common ways of messing it up that everyone should be aware of?

Unlike safety moments, toolbox talks should be entirely focused on the job at hand and what it takes to complete it safely. But like a safety moment, it should be focused. You should aim to highlight one aspect of the task or the most critical safety elements.

In my case, I might discuss lifting technique and eye protection. I could drive the point home by demonstrating good lifting technique (you know the one: bend from the knees, power the lift with your thigh muscles, and keep the load close to your center of gravity). And that would be a great opportunity to mention that, in my experience, lifting a Christmas tree properly will put a considerable quantity of spiky pine needles directly in your face, so eye protection is a must.

(Learn more in Safety Goggles vs. Safety Glasses: Which Is Right for Your Job?)

Gather the Safety Equipment

Now that you've gone over how the task is to be done, make sure you've got everything to do it right.

Do a quick check for safety equipment and make sure everyone has the right PPE.

Do all the lifters have safety glasses? Are everyone's gloves up to the task or they need to swap out for a pair that provides better protection? Are there any trip hazards on the route to the backyard that should be cleared out before the tree is in hand?

If anything's missing, get it before starting the job. If you'll need some safety equipment several steps in, get it now and place it somewhere convenient so you don't have to interrupt the work midway through.

Check in One Last Time

Before bringing the toolbox talk to an end, make sure everyone has a full grasp of the job they're about to do.

Is there anyone who has been asked to do something but they're not quite sure how to do every step? Have they been trained on it? If not, should they be given training on the spot or is it better to delegate the task to someone who has already been through it before?

If my son has never used a bow saw, I want to find that out before starts waving it around. If I don't double check with him, I might only find out when he's bounced it off a knot in the tree and ran the teeth across the back of his hand.

(Learn more in Cut Resistant Gloves: A Guide to Cut Resistance Levels)

What Makes a Good Tool Box Talk?

I find it useful to think of a toolbox talk as a highly focused version of a safety moment. It's a brief huddle that allows you to pause before the job begins and go through some of the key details.

A well executed toolbox talk will:

  • Provide continuous safety training to your team
  • Highlight job-specific hazards and constraints
  • Confirm that everyone knows how to do the job safely

But remember, it's not a presentation or a lecture. It's a talk. Participation is part of it. So ask questions, invite others to offer opinions, and 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 cooperative forum to share that responsibility.

So, when you're dragging that Christmas tree out of your living room in a couple of weeks, don't just remember to wear your safety goggles and lift from your legs. Take a moment to think about how a quick hustle with your workers can make a big difference to the safety of your workplace.

For more seasonal content, checkout our Winter Safety Knowledge Center!


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Written by Del Stevens

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Del Stevens is an independent consultant engaged in training and education in a wide range of disciplines. With an international client list in industries as diverse as the military, government, oil and gas and, most recently, the health sector, there is habitually more work than time. Despite this, Del writes daily, both professionally and for amusement, and has the pleasure of being published online and in print. Much older than he looks, Del’s favorite things are hugs with his family.

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