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Great toolbox and H&S talks

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.

What makes a great H&S talk

Great H&S talks should follow a few key principles:

Be relevant

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.

Invite the right people

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.

Worker engagement and participation

Use open-ended questions

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.

Hold talks where the risks are located if possible.

Hold talks where the risks are located if possible.

This makes it more realistic and easier to show the right H&S practices and equipment, as well as any potential mistakes.

Be hands-on and practical

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.

Eliminate fake perceptions of risk

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.

Tell stories, not numbers

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.

Stop the blame game

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.

Make it worker-led

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.

Consider language and culture

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.

Try using images or photographs.

Try using images or photographs.

Consider asking another worker — or someone from a non-native English speaker’s community — to help get the message across.

Give the why AND the what

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.

Manage

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.

Consider frequency

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.

 
Many businesses keep a check on who has attended an H&S talk for insurance or compliance purposes.

Many businesses keep a check on who has attended an H&S talk for insurance or compliance purposes.

But if H&S talks are held just to fulfil an obligation, they’re probably not very effective.

Some signs of a great H&S talk

Your H&S talk is probably working well if:

  • it seems informal, chatty but still relevant
  • it’s specific and addresses what’s going on at work now, or upcoming changes
  • there’s a two-way conversation
  • workers are actively involved in raising issues and solutions
  • stories are being told
  • there are opportunities for everyone to have a say (even those who are not confident speakers)
  • open-ended questions are asked at the end to check everyone has properly understood.

Some signs of a bad H&S talk

Your H&S talk is probably NOT working well if:

  • only one person ever speaks
  • decisions are already made
  • at the end, the organiser asks: “Did you understand that?”
  • people are thinking about what they're going to say the next time there's a meeting
  • there's a lot of finger-pointing.

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