Last reviewed 14 October 2021

Employers are morally and legally obliged to provide “suitable and sufficient” health and safety training and must ensure that workers are fully aware of the risks and hazards they face in the working environment. Toolbox talks are a useful way of focusing on health and safety issues.

Introduction

Toolbox talks play an important role in the safety management of many workplaces. A toolbox talk can be used for specific work-related health and safety, and it is a way of conveying important information quickly and in person to employees and contractors.

Toolbox talks allow supervisors to ensure health and safety is firmly at the forefront in the minds of workers and help promote a health and safety culture, keeping people both safe and productive.

Also, by asking questions and getting feedback, a workplace can improve in how it operates both in terms of safety and efficiency.

NOTE: A toolbox talk is a method of conveying information to individuals who already have some knowledge and information on a subject. It should never be used as a substitute for formal training or instruction.

Safety briefings v toolbox talks

Although the terms “safety briefing” and “toolbox talk” are often used interchangeably, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) makes a distinction between the two.

Safety briefings are short, formal meetings usually delivered by the site supervisor that detail the health and safety hazards and risks that workers will face. The aim of the briefing is to convey information and instructions, and should be attended by everyone who will be working on that particular site including subcontractors and key members of the supply chain.

Safety briefings are usually held daily, on site, prior to the start of a job, shift or access to the site. To be effective such briefings should be brief; mindful that an attendee’s concentration is likely to dip after the 30-minute mark.

In contrast, the toolbox talk is an informal short presentation that should focus on a single topic and explore the risks of specific health and safety issues on the premises or site. Examples include personal protective equipment and accident reporting. As well as informing inexperienced workers, they are a good way to remind experienced workers of control measures and procedures.

While the talks are informal, regular meetings (as and when required) will help reinforce an organisation’s commitment to maintaining a safe working environment. For example, a toolbox talk may be a good way of addressing an upcoming change to regulations or standards, or a reoccurring health and safety issue.

Traditionally, the speaker would stand on an actual toolbox. This is no longer a prerequisite, but a warm, dry space free of distractions, such as a site office, will undoubtedly aid the meeting’s effectiveness.

The content of your toolbox talk

Toolbox talks are typically somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes in length.

The contents of a toolbox talk can vary but it should mainly include safety information and safe working procedures relevant to the environment, the work being carried out or the work yet to be started. Any existing, new or foreseeable hazards must be discussed as well as the particular policies and procedures of the organisation or site.

Specific topics should be covered if failings in certain areas of safety management or safe behaviours have been identified. For example, if an employee has failed an alcohol and drugs test, this could lead to this topic being given time for discussion and the company rules and policy reiterated.

Areas of change to the workplace should also be noted, eg construction work being carried out that blocks a fire escape route. In this case the alternative, temporary fire strategy should be described.

Delivery of a toolbox talk

All toolbox talks should be held in company time and distractions avoided. It is advised that you have an attendance register signed by all employees and contractors to ensure you can track all the personnel who have heard the talk.

Allow yourself time to prepare, as you not only need be familiar with the topic and its specific application to your workplace or premises, but also you may need to answer questions on the subject.

Remember, the aim of the toolbox talk is for all who are present to understand the topic and remember the information that is given to them. Keep to brief and critical facts.

The following points will help on delivery.

  • Try to make the toolbox talk more of a discussion than a lecture, as people will remember more that way.

  • Plan a good beginning and end to the discussion.

  • Make it clear why the topic being discussed is important and what is going to be covered

  • Split the talk into stages with questions at the end of each stage to keep everyone’s interest.

  • Listen to the answers. This will help you gauge general understanding of the topic and may also suggest improvements to policies and procedures.

  • To be effective, content should be interesting, informative, engaging and memorable. A positive attitude, humour and enthusiasm for the subject will help engage your listeners..

  • As well as making material relevant to the task in hand, consider topicality. Are there examples in the news you can use to show a real-world relevance?

  • However, remember that health and safety is a serious subject and the overall approach should reflect this.

  • Acknowledge where there are questions you can’t answer at the time. This will show that you are open to gathering information for the health and safety of your workers.

You can use a range of tools to facilitate learning — whiteboards or flipcharts to note key points or discussions, printed notes to aid discussion or act as a reference guide, or a PowerPoint presentation to help pace and summarise the talk itself. Visual examples or a short video can greatly aid understanding.

Conclusion

Toolbox talks have an essential role to play in ensuring health and safety matters are at the forefront of workers’ minds, helping to keep your site or workplace safe and productive.