Use Toolbox Talks to Improve Worker Safety During the Labor Shortage

Contractors need to focus on providing robust workplace safety education, such as safety briefs called “toolbox talks.”
By Shawn Smith
April 20, 2022

Since President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, construction demand has increased. The labor force, however, has not: 92% of contractors reported moderate to high levels of difficulty recruiting skilled labor in Q3 2021, up from 88% in Q2.

When paired with high construction demand, the skilled labor shortage has increased workplace pressures on remaining industry veterans. And with fewer skilled workers, construction companies have had to rely on a less-skilled workforce—a fact that should concern safety-minded contractors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one-third of nonfatal construction-related injuries occur among workers with under a year’s experience.

Given this reality, contractors need to focus on providing robust workplace safety education. One effective method can be regular safety briefs called “toolbox talks.”

The Construction Labor Shortage Threatens Workplace Safety

The construction industry’s labor shortage has been a persistent problem since the Great Recession. But in Q3 2021, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Construction Index (CCI) painted a particularly grim picture. Of the contractors struggling to recruit skilled workers:

  • Seventy-three percent find it difficult to meet project schedule requirements.
  • Seventy-one percent are demanding more of their skilled workers.
  • Ninety-three percent expect the labor shortage to persist or worsen over the next six months.

These numbers describe a perfect storm for more frequent on-site injuries. When overworked and understaffed crews feel pressured to stay on schedule, they might cut corners. Those decisions can seriously impact their safety.

Fortunately, contractors recognize this problem—workplace safety is their second-highest concern, according to last quarter’s CCI. Even so, concern isn’t enough. In order to find an actionable solution, contractors need efficient and effective ways to implement workplace safety training.

Use Toolbox Talks to Keep Safety Top of Mind

For contractors struggling to find time for safety training within a busy project schedule, toolbox talks can help make workplace safety a priority. Usually led by shift supervisors or safety representatives, these talks:

  • Are informal.
  • Last up to 10 minutes.
  • Can happen daily or weekly before shifts.

In an example toolbox talk, your crews might discuss matters like scaffold safety, eye protection, or fall protection anchor systems. Because these discussions are so brief, regular toolbox talks can keep safety top of mind without taking much time away from daily tasks.

Toolbox talks can benefit your workers in a few ways. They enable your crews to:

  • Refresh their workplace safety knowledge.
  • Perform safety checks.
  • Receive advice from experienced crewmates, supervisors or safety professionals.

With consistent usage, toolbox talks can help you build a safer workplace. However, it’s important to note that toolbox talks are intended to supplement—not replace—formal safety training. Your crews should engage in regular longer-format training sessions to ensure a deeper understanding of workplace safety and comply with relevant regulations (OSHA, EPA, etc.).

Tips for an Effective Toolbox Talk

For maximum effectiveness, your toolbox talks should follow a few key guidelines. When you hold a toolbox talk, remember to:

  1. Hold your talk in a distraction-free environment.
  2. Focus on a single relevant topic, such as a project-specific hazard or observed concern.
  3. Use props where applicable, such as a ladder if your topic is ladder safety.
  4. Make space for questions.
  5. In case you’re audited, record talk details to demonstrate your attention to safety. At a minimum, write down the talk’s date, topic, trainer and attendees.

Taking these steps can help you demonstrate the value of toolbox talks to your crews. Toolbox talks can keep critical safety information top of mind and encourage better communication. And with proper attention, these quick safety chats can mitigate incident risks and build trust between workers and your company.

A Culture of Safety Can Help You Weather the Labor Shortage

Construction can be dangerous work—in 2019, 20% of all workplace fatalities happened on construction sites. Safety concerns can make it difficult to attract workers, apart from the current labor shortage. But a culture of safety can change that.

Alongside toolbox talks and formal workplace safety training, you should post clearly defined safety protocols for each project. Encourage your workers to call out unsafe practices within their crews. And make sure they feel comfortable speaking up to supervisors if safety appears to be on the back burner.

With safety as a priority, your company can better mitigate risk to retain your existing labor. And going forward, you make it easier to recruit and train new workers.

by Shawn Smith

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