Toolbox talks, as you may already know, are a popular way to strengthen your safety training efforts. Toolbox talks bolster one of the key principles of good safety practice: clear and concise communication practices. Unfortunately excellent communication is a rare skill and many managers, supervisors and other employees responsible for safety talks feel out of their depth when required to deliver toolbox talks. This is understandable, since despite the apparent simplicity of a toolbox talk that is delivered well, it requires good public speaking skills, writing and planning.
The Problem with Pre-made Toolbox Talks
This is one of the main reasons pre-made toolbox talks are so popular. It takes most of the preparatory work out of the process. Pre-made talks have their place, but they have some serious downsides. First of all, although we have safety standard, safety itself is not a standard issue across organisations. A pre-made talk cannot take into account the unique safety concerns of your organisation. Secondly, using a pre-made talk can lead to an insincere and therefore ineffective delivery. This is almost as bad as not having toolbox talks at all, since poorly delivered talks are likely to go in one ear and out the other.
A well delivered toolbox talk, on the other hand, can keep issues fresh in the minds of employees who have undergone safety training. It can solidify new training into their long term memories and ultimately save lives and property. So this is one area well worth doing right. Here, we are going to go over the most important points when first planning and then delivering your toolbox talks.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
The most important part of the toolbox talk process is the planning phase. If you do a good job here it means that the delivery will be so much easier. Toolbox talks are meant to be short and to the point, which may lead you to believe that they will be easy to write, but actually it is very challenging to decide what should and should not be said during such a talk. Complex and irrelevant information can render your talk not only ineffective but counter-productive.
So how should you go about planning your talk?
The first thing you should do is to know the topic well. In other words, you should know more about the topic than the confines of what the talk requires. Enough to answer any typical questions that may pop up. You need to be able to talk about the topic without having to refer to notes and further have the ability to lead a discussion about it after the talk is complete.
It’s also important to have simple, reinforcing material to hand out for the talk as well, You need to provide your listeners with something that will prevent them from rapidly forgetting the content of the talk. A summary of your main points, an FAQ or visual material such as reference diagrams are all potentially useful.
When choosing an actual topic it is important that it be relevant and timely. What this means is that it should be about a recent incident or about issues that are possible in upcoming work. Making it timely and relevant increases the chances that your audience will engage and absorb what you have to say. Failing that renders the entire exercise pointless.
When it gets down to the shape and format the talk should take, there is a fairly consistent order to things in a toolbox talk, which is a good thing since it lets you concentrate on the content and not on the container. Toolbox talks generally start on a positive note, thank everyone for attending and showing that they take safety seriously. Note how everyone is doing a great job in observing safety, but that there is always room for improvement. Make sure everyone knows that they can voice their questions and concerns at the end of the talk and the toolbox talk is meant to be an exchange of ideas for everyone’s benefit.
When you get to the meat of the talk, focus on only the most important points related to safety. Only offer explanations of a given point if it isn’t obviously clear why it is important. Remember that anyone who doesn’t understand has a chance to ask questions at the end of the talk. To end your talk, remember to thanks everyone for being a part of the team and form making sure everyone they work with are in a safer environment.
When the time comes to do the talk it is very important that you make your audience comfortable, but also that you should be comfortable. As long as you are clear and concise it does not matter how you deliver the message. What is important is that you keep things informal and friendly. You can keep noted to help you stay on track, but do not read off a pre-written speech. Just write down bulleted points of the key issues you wanted to cover and then communicate them in your own words using a conversational tone.
As far as possible, show and don’t tell. Show examples of tools that have been used the wrong way or damage that has been done through not doing things in the prescribed way. Use pictures or real samples if you can. Demonstrate with actual equipment and allow for hands-on interaction. Although you will offer a Q&A session at the end of your talk, be sure to ask questions of your audience during the talk. Keep them engaged by asking them to volunteer information about the topic throughout. Audience interaction is important in order to keep energy levels high and engagement steady.
Timing is Everything
When you host a toolbox talk, time it so that it will disrupt people’s work day as little as possible. First thing in the morning or directly after lunch are good times suggested by many occupational safety organisations. The length of the talk should be as short as possible, given the complexity of the topic and content. Typically no more than 30 minutes for the talk and 15 minutes for questions and answers.
Above all, remember the KISS principle “keep it simple, stupid”. As long as you have a single clear message and eliminate ambiguity from your talk the likelihood is that it will be an effective and memorable one.
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