In Brief

  • Toolbox talks can improve communication, empower workers, reduce injuries and improve safety. However, they often are missed opportunities to provide important safety messages in construction.

  • Two research projects---one using contextually driven work site information and one using a participatory problem-solution approach---were conducted to gain insight on ways to improve toolbox talks.

  • Results indicate that these approaches improved worker participation in site-specific safety communication.

Toolbox talks are common in many industries, including construction. Defined as informal work-site training, these talks are designed to deliver safety messages to improve safety and prevent work-related incidents (Varley & Boldt, 2002). Also referred to as tailgate trainings and stand-up meetings, toolbox talks allow an employer to briefly convey critical, time-sensitive safety information to a group of workers, many of whom are transient or temporary (Harrington, Materna, Vannoy, et al., 2009). Done well, these talks can improve communication, empower workers, reduce injuries and improve safety (Gillen, Goldenhar, Hecker, et al., 2013). Often, however, toolbox talks are missed opportunities for providing important safety messages in construction (Harrington, et al., 2009).

Toolbox talks differ widely in content, type, delivery method and level of worker engagement. Discussion topics and general content for canned talks are widely available from agencies funded by state and federal government (CPWR, 2014; eLCOSH, 2014a; Harvard Environmental Health & Safety, 2014; Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, 2014) and from safety organizations, risk management companies and international sources. Although these prepared resources provide useful information, they are more relevant and effective when tailored to each job site, the work tasks at hand and the construction crew (Harrington, et al., 2009; Varley & Boldt, 2002).

Several delivery methods are more effective than a typical lecture format. For example, narrative approaches involve sharing real-life stories of near hits and workplace incidents to which employees can relate (Heidotting, 2002; Varley & Boldt, 2002). Participatory approaches engage the crew in discussing a topic that can be applied to their specific situation, and foster site-specific problem solving (Harrington, et al., 2009; Varley & Boldt, 2002).

Research also suggests that workers are more attentive when groups are small (fewer than 20 workers) and the trainer is a senior employee, such as a site supervisor, foreman or safety supervisor, who is perceived as having authority to support any needed changes (Varley & Boldt, 2002). Heidotting (2002) suggests that these talks should occur daily at construction sites. Furthermore, given the rising number of Latinos in the workforce, they should be tailored to the varying needs of the workers and delivered in workers' native language (Harrington, et al., 2009; Williams, Ochsner, Marshall, et al., 2010).

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