Conducting Toolbox Talks

Regular talks with employees will fill out your company’s safety program.

By Alexandra Walsh

Safety meetings are one of the recommended methods to disseminate current jobsite safety information.

Most of you are familiar with the safety meetings called toolbox talks or tailgate talks. These are casual team safety meetings that can be held anytime, anywhere with workers discussing a specific safety hazard and safe work practices.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no specific standard or language requiring a company to hold toolbox talks. However, there is legal language in OSHA’s standards that could be used as an argument to do so.

For example, Title 29, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 1926 for Construction, 1926.21(b)(2) states the following:

“The employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to his work environment to control or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness or injury.”

Why Have Toolbox Talks?

While toolbox talks are not officially considered “safety training” by many companies, they can be used as a best practice supporting a company’s safety training program—which in turn can help fill in gaps regarding specific requirements mentioned in the standard above.

Most companies with robust safety training programs conduct in-depth training. They begin with onboarding new employees, and then train as needed throughout the year as well as annually to satisfy specific OSHA requirements.

However, making time for toolbox talks consistently will not only help protect a company from the scrutiny of OSHA, but more importantly, effective toolbox talks keep their workers safe.

Safety compliance training, like fall protection or hazardous materials handling, is vital, important, and required. But at best, that compliance training will be provided to employees only once a year or less. Toolbox talks provide an easy way to keep safety on every worker’s mind, every day, every week.

The goal of a toolbox talk is to provide safety reminders, brief refreshers, and quick lessons on topics that might not get covered in the longer safety training courses. The informal setting gives supervisors a chance to answer questions, point out specific examples on the jobsite, and provide hands-on demonstrations.

Incorporating toolbox talks into your safety program doesn’t need to be time consuming or expensive. A toolbox talk can be extremely informal; for example, a supervisor leading a 5-minute refresher training on proper tool use with reminders to always leave the guards in place.

A written handout isn’t necessary and the supervisor can use his knowledge to lead the discussion and encourage feedback.

Best Practices

Listed here are a few guidelines to consider to get the most out of your toolbox talks:

  • Pick a topic relevant to your employees and the work going on. Don’t just talk for the sake of doing so.
  • Have a plan. Shooting from the hip when it comes to delivering effective toolbox talks doesn’t work.
  • Make the message more interesting by including personal stories or past lessons learned relating to the topic.
  • Get workers to participate by asking them for stories or examples of what you’re discussing.
  • Make sure to document the topic on a sign-in sheet and have everyone present for the talk sign the sheet.
  • Read the toolbox talk to yourself a couple of times before you hold the actual meeting with workers. That way you will be more familiar with the content covered and less apt to stumble.
  • Try to hold the toolbox talk in an area 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 focus on your message.
  • Speak clearly and directly. Mumbling or reading too fast makes it difficult for the workers to understand you. Just take a deep breath and speak clearly and at a natural pace.
  • Use a prop when possible to help keep the workers’ attention. If you’re giving a toolbox talk on setting up a portable stepladder, set one up nearby so you can point out things during the talk. To really drive home a point, have an unlabeled container you found on the jobsite available when giving a toolbox talk on OSHA’s hazard communication standards about labeling requirements.
  • Always give workers an opportunity to ask questions.
  • Last but not least, practice what you preach. Nothing makes a safety trainer lose credibility faster than to have a worker see them doing something violating the safety precautions covered in a previous toolbox talk. Always set a good example.

Who Leads?

Toolbox talks are typically led by a supervisor, but anyone responsible for safety, even the company owner, can lead a toolbox talk. Sometimes it’s the company’s safety specialist or HR manager or even a safety consultant leading these informal meetings.

Toolbox Topics

Anything related to health and safety that is important to your company and will help your employees recognize potential hazards in the workplace is a good topic for the toolbox talk. Topics might include:

  • Eye protection
  • Cold weather safety
  • Using power tools correctly
  • Preventing slips, trips, and falls
  • Proper lifting techniques
  • How to recognize symptoms of fatigue
  • Dealing with outdoor natural hazards such as snakes or thunderstorms
  • Recognizing heat-related illnesses
  • Proper PPE use
  • Flu prevention or stress in the workplace.

For guided toolbox talks, you can find many sources online, ranging from safety sheets to safety programs that have toolbox talks included.

What constitutes a worthwhile topic for a company’s next toolbox talk can also vary greatly. These two OSHA sites are good sources for material:

  • OSHA’s Safety and Health Topics (www.osha.gov/SLTC). OSHA has a great library of materials separated by alphabetical order ready for you to use.
  • OSHA’s Fatal Facts (www.osha.gov/Publications/fatalfacts.html). OSHA puts out information regarding fatal workplace accidents for other companies to learn from. If the specific work task or industry where the fatalities occurred don’t relate to your workforce, lessons can often still be learned from each incident.

How Often and How Long?

As a rule, you can’t have too many toolbox talks, safety meetings, or too much compliance training. Some companies have toolbox talks at the beginning of every shift. A focus on safety isn’t a bad way to start the day.

Best practice for most companies is to have a weekly safety meeting, at minimum. For companies that have fewer on-the-job hazards, a monthly safety meeting may be adequate.

A toolbox talk should last as long as is necessary to ensure the employees understand the material provided. Toolbox talks are meant to be an addition to your safety program and do not take the place of longer compliance training that is required. Aim for toolbox talks to last anywhere from 5-15 minutes and adjust as necessary for that day’s topic.

Recording Attendance

Passing around a sign-in sheet or having one person write down everyone’s name is sufficient. Make sure the topic, date, and location are recorded on the sign-in sheet. File a hard copy at the office or scan it in to save electronically. If your company has a more sophisticated training platform, make sure toolbox talk attendance is captured in your training system.

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Adding toolbox talks to any safety program is guaranteed to improve workplace safety, boost team morale, lower insurance premiums, strengthen safety compliance, and lower the risk of safety violations. And while not specifically required by any OSHA regulation, they shouldn’t need to be for a company to want to consistently incorporate them as part of their safety program.

Safety training alone, especially when done strictly on an annual basis, can leave holes in a company’s safety program as well as their workforce’s level of safety education. Evaluate how toolbox talks can benefit your company and take the time to find quality relevant topics to share with your team.

DACUM Codes
To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOD-8, DOK-8, DOK-9, DOL-2, DOL-3, PIB-2, PIG-3, GOD-10, GOI-8, GOI-9, GOJ-2, GOJ-3. More information on DACUM and the charts are available here.
Safety Products Available by NGWA
The National Ground Water Association has a product titled Safety Meetings for the Groundwater Industry consisting of 52 sheets that have talking points on a variety of industry-related topics and a place for signatures for those in attendance. It and other safety products can be found in the online bookstore.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.