How to Make Your Safety Training Talks Effective

By Roy Maurer June 1, 2014

The names vary by industry and worksite—“Toolbox Talks,” “Tailgate Chats,” “Safety Meetings,” “Crew Briefings”—but these brief, pre-shift pep talks can reinforce safety training, heighten employee awareness of workplace hazards and safety regulations, and improve safety performance.

Even if your organization has a solid safety program, toolbox safety talks can be a great refresher on changes in safety regulations, procedures, personal protective equipment (PPE), and job assignments and responsibilities. Further, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires refresher training on some topics.

“Toolbox talks are an easy way for foremen and supervisors to supplement the safety training efforts of their company or organization, and to keep safety front and center in their workers’ minds,” said Curtis Chambers, CSP, the CEO of OSHA Training Services, a national provider of OSHA training. Safety chats are also used to target specific safety and health concerns that may arise on the worksite in the course of the day, week or month, noted Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America.

A safety chat program can be set up at any time, but could be especially needed when it appears workers are getting lax about safety. An increase in accidents and near misses, messy work areas, and workers not wearing the required PPE or using equipment properly could all be indicative of a lax safety culture.

Just repeating the rules from time to time may not change your work culture either. Safety talks, like any training, must be effective to make a difference.

“Some employers see toolbox talks as a problem, keeping employees from doing their work, and try to keep them as short as possible,” said Schneider. “Often the presentations are canned and from a weekly subscription service, and little thought is given to what is said or how it’s delivered. Sometimes workers are required to sign a form to document attendance and ensure a safety discount from the company’s insurer,” he said.

If the talks are given perfunctorily, just to satisfy a requirement, they won’t have much impact. For safety training talks to be effective, consider the following tips:

*Safety talks should be presented—not read. It’s OK to refer to notes, but you should not just read a safety talk, said Bob Synnett, the president and founder of Safety Management Consultants, based in Columbia, S.C. “It will be far more effective if the presenter reviews topic materials before the meeting, and then presents the topic,” he said.

Also try to speak clearly and directly. “Mumbling or reading too fast makes it difficult for the workers to understand you,” said Chambers. Know the subject and speak with your own voice, advised David Lynn, vice president of Signature Services at Life and Safety Consultants, based in Greenville, S.C.

*Presenters should be chosen wisely. Safety talks should be presented by a supervisor, foreman or similar type of manager with direct supervision over the employees, said Synnett. “Don’t delegate this important task. When toolbox safety training is presented by a credible supervisor or person of similar responsibility, it’s far more likely the training will be taken seriously,” he said.

*Distractions should be barred. Try to hold the toolbox talk in an area that is free of noise and other distractions. “If the workers cannot hear you talking, or are distracted by other activities in the area, they won’t be focusing on your talk,” said Chambers. Focusing on one subject per talk will also lessen the odds that your employees will lose focus on the subject matter.

*Talks should be relevant. Topics should be specific to the work environment. “Obviously, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about heat stress in the dead of winter, or Lyme disease in a region that is not affected, or scaffold safety on a highway project,” said Schneider. He suggested talking with the workers first to see what issues are most relevant at the time, or conducting a walk-through of the site to relate the talk to real conditions on the job.

*Talks should be short and pointed. Safety talks should take no longer than 5-10 minutes. You likely can address one specific hazard or issue and the relevant safeguards in that 5-10 minute time span, said Synnett. Because you may not be able to cover everything you want to say in 10 minutes, you can distribute a short handout for workers to read, said Schneider. A good handout is short, written in simple, clear language and gives specific action items that a worker can take to prevent injury or illness, he said.

*Make the talk vivid. Avoid generic topics and general statements such as “do better.” Pin down specifics, and lay out exactly what is expected. “Your job is to get people to imagine, think and feel the value of the talking points,” said Lynn. He advised helping employees visualize the content of the training through pictures and video and through sharing personal examples. Humor is another great device to engage workers. In addition, “telling stories makes the problem a lot more real for people and helps them understand the seriousness of the hazard,” said Schneider. “Many trainers will comb the local papers for stories of fatalities, injuries or accidents or relate stories of problems they have run up against or witnessed,” he said.

*Use props when possible. For example, “if you’re giving a toolbox talk on setting up a portable step ladder, have one set up nearby so you can point out things as you give the talk,” said Chambers. “To really drive home a point on OSHA’s hazard communication labeling requirements, have an unlabeled container you found on the jobsite available,” he said.

*Allow time for questions and discussion. Always give workers an opportunity to ask questions. “Don’t make snide remarks to employees who ask a question, as this will discourage others from asking questions later,” said Chambers.

Talks can be made much more effective by making them interactive with a question and answer format, said Schneider. Nobody likes to be lectured, and workers bring a lot of experience and knowledge to a safety meeting. “Posing safety problems or concerns and asking for input or solutions will result in a collaborative approach to safety that increases the effectiveness of your program. By asking for their input, you show respect and make workers full partners in the safety process,” he added.

*Take care with language. Toolbox talks need to be in the language most workers understand and speak. Hispanic workers need toolbox talks in Spanish if that is the language they understand best, said Schneider.

*Safety talks should be documented. One of the most frequently cited OSHA standards maintains that it’s the employer’s responsibility to train employees regarding all workplace hazards and their appropriate safeguards. Documentation is the only way to prove to OSHA that this training has been completed, said Synnett. “Even if certain OSHA standards do not require documentation of safety training, it can’t hurt to have the information about the topic, the trainer, the date and names of the workers on file,” said Chambers.

*Practice what you preach. Always set a good example, said Chambers. “Nothing makes a trainer lose credibility faster than to have a worker see them doing something that violates the safety precautions that were covered in a previous toolbox talk.”

Create Cultural Safety Icons

Lynn describes a cultural safety “icon” as a practice or behavior within a company that every employee recognizes. “It is an expectation that is ingrained into the collective fabric of your team,” he said.

While Lynn worked as the corporate programs manager at global engineering and construction firm Fluor, an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program assessment team spent a week interviewing employees at the corporate office in Greenville. The OSHA reps told him that when asked for examples of how the company demonstrates a strong safety culture, the overwhelming response from workers was the short safety talk before general meetings.

“After a lot of reflection, I came to the conclusion that Fluor had created a cultural icon,” he said. “No matter where you went around the world, Fluor employees were accustomed to hearing a safety topic before each meeting. It was a universal process that communicated more than just content. The commitment to incorporate safety into thousands of meetings around the world made a cultural impression on employees.”

Lynn recommends finding a way to integrate your safety message into every meeting that your company holds. “When you commit to a consistent communication process, you make a huge impression. The process is just as important as the content of the safety topic,” he said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy



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