Let’s be honest, almost all of us have been to a company meeting and seen people bored, zoned out or rolling their eyes. We might have felt this way ourselves. This can also be true of H&S talks — sometimes called toolbox talks, safety talks, or safety briefings.
It’s very important to have meaningful and effective H&S talks. It’s good for people and it’s good for business. This doesn’t mean hour-long talks or lots of documentation. What it does mean is approaching H&S with the right attitude and aiming to get everyone involved.
Great H&S talks should follow these key principles:
Choose topics that make sense to the site, people and the sequence of work you’re in. One way to figure out what you should be talking about is to ask workers what they think needs priority.
Be sure to include people who aren’t employees, if they are regularly part of that work, so everyone is on the same page. Contractors can share good ideas they’ve seen in other workplaces.
Rather than simply telling people what needs to be done, ask open-ended questions to promote involvement. Remember, getting people’s viewpoints, input and suggestions is not only the best way to build a strong H&S culture, but it’s part of your legal duty. Getting workers involved also shows respect and makes them an integral part of the safety process.
This makes it more realistic and easier to show the right H&S practices and equipment, as well as any potential mistakes.
All workers, but especially those who work with their hands, want to see how things will actually work in their day-to-day lives. Make a portion of H&S talks hands-on, bring in tools or demonstrate how effective something is.
For whatever reason, New Zealanders have a lot of problems with estimating the level of risks they take at work. For example, someone might rationalise that they don’t have to put on their safety harness because they’re only going to be on the ledge for 30 seconds. Dispelling myths about how safe the work actually is can go a long way. A great way to do this is to use examples, stories or demonstrations.
Citing statistics about H&S rarely works because people can’t relate to them. Instead, tell a real-life story. Be sure to include what happened afterwards, perhaps relating to new H&S practices or the effect the incident had on the person’s colleagues, friends and family. A great story can go a long way to communicate how seriously H&S should be treated.
A sure-fire way to have a bad H&S culture is to jump straight to blaming people. Identifying problems and then simply blaming it on carelessness rarely gets to the heart of the problem. It also makes people more defensive and less likely to engage with H&S. Dig a little deeper and you’re likely to find a different problem, eg a complicated work set-up, poor work processes, unrealistic expectations about how long tasks should take, or poor supervision.
Different people are experts at different things. This is particularly relevant to the trades, agriculture and construction sectors. Getting more mature and experienced workers to deliver H&S talks is useful because less-experienced staff respect and trust them. Because these workers are often used to dealing with less qualified people — and have often been in those roles themselves — they’re typically less inclined to talk down to other workers.
H&S talks need to suit the audience. So, depending on your workers, you might want to think about the kind of language you use — not to mention the actual language itself. This is particularly true of sectors with ethnically diverse workers, or those with varying levels of English literacy. Make sure you ask your workers about the best way to communicate with them about H&S.
Workplace H&S case studies (external link) — WorkSafe
Effective H&S talks make sure people understand why certain rules exist — not just what they are. This gives workers context and a greater appreciation for everything that might be involved.
It’s also very easy for these meetings to become whinge sessions and extended story time. You need to keep on top of what’s important. So allow discussions, but keep them on track and relevant.
There’s a fine line between not enough H&S and being over the top. Think about who your work might affect and the environment you’re operating in. In some cases you might need to hold the same talk multiple times, in different places, and with different people — or a short talk at the start of each day. In other work environments, a short meeting once a week might be enough.
Health & safety (H&S) talks are about the business and workers learning from each other to keep everyone safe and healthy at work. It’s essential to engage with workers and have ways for them to participate in H&S on a regular and ongoing basis. Not only is it good for performance and productivity, it’s the right thing to do. Follow these tips for great H&S conversations.
Your workers are the eyes and ears of your business and may know about H&S risks and issues you aren’t aware of. Encourage them to speak up and offer suggestions and solutions. If they can share their stories, give demonstrations and call out issues, they’ll know they’re valued and you’re all in it together.
Let workers see and try out how things actually work day-to-day. Bring tools to your talks. Show workers the safe and right way of using them, and let them have a go. If possible, hold talks where the risks are located.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. Share real-life stories – of the good and the bad. Say what happened before, during and after an incident. Use stories from your own business or from the news.
Encourage your workers to feel comfortable telling you about risks or issues. Thank them. Act on it. At the next talk, explain what’s been done. Also recognize when H&S is done well. Give a prize or award, or simply share the good story and say “nice work”.
H&S talks need to suit the audience. Ask workers how best to communicate with them. Think about the language, the type of words, and who delivers the messages. Use photos and real tools. Chat about it to check everyone understands.
Consider asking another worker — or someone from a non-native English speaker’s community — to help get the message across.
But if H&S talks are held just to fulfil an obligation, they’re probably not very effective.
Your H&S talk is probably working well if:
Your H&S talk is probably NOT working well if: