Call them toolbox talks, tailgate talks, safety moments, pre-job briefings, task hazard reviews, field-level risk assessments – you name it. Whatever you label them, they all have similar elements and are done for the same purpose.

And no, we're not talking about safety meetings with coffee and donuts, the meetings meant to share information, education, or training on a short OSHA-style subject. That type of meeting is a powerful tool, too, and needs to be part of your safety management system (and might be required by company policies or legislation and regulation), but it's not the subject of this article.

The type of safety talk we're covering here are the ones that take place right before we start working. They're the ones that cover material specific to the work and specific tasks that are going to be done on that day.

Unlike more formal safety meetings, these talks should be held as often as needed. You might need to have them several times a day, when the work or task changes or the crew moves on to the next part of the work.

These toolbox talks are usually led by the supervisor, lead hand, or field safety rep. They take place in the field, at the actual job site, and they include input from the crew that will be doing the work.

(Find out Why Safety Moments Matter.)

Safety Power

These pre-task toolbox talks provide your team with safety power.

Why? Because they're an act of communication that targets a specific, identifiable, and achievable mindset.

Think one word: Focus!

Toolbox talks put the tasks front of mind, along with the hazards, risks, and the roles each worker must play in doing the job. It puts you in the moment. You're not thinking about the weekend ballgame, the bills, or what TV show you're going to watch that night. It puts all your focus on the work.

(Learn about Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture.)

Why is focus so important? Well, I played a lot of hockey in my life and I've had a lot of great coaches tell me and my team to get our heads into the game before we get on the ice. I made it a personal ritual to think about what I was going to do and how I was going to play before I even stepped out onto the rink.

Did it work? Absolutely. It put me in the moment, and I saw real results from that change in mindset. Focus is really powerful stuff!

Focusing on Safety

I have investigated or reviewed thousands of incidents and reports over the past 34 years. The thing that still sticks out in my mind is how many of them included a comment from a worker involved in the mechanism of incident or injury along the lines of "I wasn't thinking about the job." Or worse, "What was I thinking about?"

They were disengaged, not present – not focused.

Let's consider an example: helicopter flights in and out of remote or isolated work sites.

You've got four workers on board along with one pilot. They're loading up to fly home at the end of a long day. The helicopter has heavy mesh tool baskets on the skids.

Procedures require the the crew and the pilot load and secure those tools, usually with a hard cover or time downs and netting. Then, they should check it before take-off.

But on that evening, there was no toolbox talk, no run-through of the procedure. So, they just toss the tools in, jump in the chopper, and go. They hit turbulence. The chopper dips suddenly. The loose tool bag in the skid basket bounces up and into the tail rotor.

The chopper crashes, and I'll leave it up to you to imagine the rest.

That exemplifies the sentiment captured in an old phrase from the British Military: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.

(Learn more in Lessons from 3 of the Worst Workplace Disasters.)

How to Give an Effective Toolbox Talk

OSHA has laid out some best practices for this type of meeting.

Each talk should go over the job sequence, list the hazards associated with that job, and summarize the way those hazards will be controlled.

Here is the how OSHA recommends preparing for these meetings:

  1. Define the task
  2. Identify the roles and responsibilities
  3. Identify the hazards
  4. Determine risk mitigation
  5. List the tools, equipment, and PPE that will be used
  6. Have emergency response information on hand
  7. Determine the number of briefings to be held

OSHA also recommends having a document for each worker to sign, to attest to the fact that they have participated in the job briefing.

Done correctly, these toolbox talks should provide workers with valuable guidelines, improve compliance, and reduce the risk of injury.

An Act of Leadership

Safety and meetings go hand-in-hand. So do safety and planning. How well your organization (and you as the safety practitioner) run the safety management system will determine your safety performance.

Toolbox talks are a critical key to that system. If you're not already doing them, start now! If you are already, keep up the good work.

These talks are an act of leadership that benefit you, your company, and your staff.