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Engaging in Safety: Toolbox Talks and Tech Tools with Jill Schaefer and Taylor Thorn

Toby Graham

Engaging in Safety: Toolbox Talks and Tech Tools with Jill Schaefer and Taylor Thorn

In this episode of The Safety Meeting, we connect with Jill Schaefer, KPA’s Director of Content Management, and Taylor Thorn, KPA’s Senior Product Director and founder of Anchor Rock, about strategies for creating effective toolbox talks. Jill and Taylor overview how to increase energy and engagement in safety meetings and outline how digital processes and the right technology are key safety tools for the future.

Today, we’re speaking with Taylor Thorn and Jill Schaefer. Taylor is the senior product director at KPA and the founder of AnchoRock, a safety and compliance software company geared toward the construction industry. He spent over 10 years working hand in hand with hundreds of safety professionals to streamline and bolster their safety programs. Thanks for being with us, Taylor.

Taylor: Happy to be here.

Jill Schaefer is KPA’s director of content management. She’s had 20 years of communications experience ranging from PR to marketing and product leadership. Jill is a writer at heart who has spent her career teaching and storytelling on important topics like safety, compliance, energy efficiency, healthcare, and education. Words, powerful graphics, and creativity motivate her. Thanks for being with us, Jill.

Jill: Howdy. Thank you.

All right, well, let’s jump into these questions. Today’s topic is toolbox talks and safety meetings. How can we inject some energy and engagement into our safety gatherings to ensure that everyone stays tuned in and is actively participating?

Taylor: So there are multiple ways we can go about injecting energy and engagement into these safety gatherings. And a quick note on terminology before we get too deep into this: you’re going to hear Jill and I mention toolbox talks, tailgate meetings, safety meetings, and safety gatherings. We’re talking the same thing, and we’re using those interchangeably. So, I just want to give the listeners the heads-up.


Thank you for that.

Taylor: Yeah, no worries. When we think about creating more engagement with toolbox talks, there are really two things that we believe should be considered. One is convenience, so creating an ease of getting this process documented. And then two would be content, relevant content. And when we pair that convenience with the content, we think that equals effective safety meetings. And so you might hear us say a few times today, convenience plus content equals effectiveness, and we believe that. So on the convenience front, certainly field and safety leaders responsible for leading the toolbox talks are always seeking a more efficient way to manage this process. Pen and paper have worked for a long time, there’s no doubt about that.

But as times are changing and this digital transformation is happening within the workforce, the way toolbox talks are being hosted and led is certainly changing. And one thing to think about here is the workforce has devices all around them at all times. We all do, right? We’re using these devices day in, day out, every minute, every hour, whatever the case is. And so it’s no surprise that this toolbox talk process is starting to take shape by leveraging the technology that is just around us. And so, if we think about that a little bit, there are really two primary goals of this idea of the toolbox talk, right? The first goal is to be able to document who’s in attendance from a record keeping standpoint to keep OSHA happy and make sure you’re compliant from that standpoint.

And then the second would be, and probably the more important one in our opinions, delivering a topic that is not only incredibly educational and relevant, but also concise and easy to consume. So, from a convenience standpoint, the app-based platforms, we believe, is kind of where the world’s going, and that enables the end user to lead this process directly off their phone or a tablet. And that’s become the mainstay in terms of how this process actually takes place in the field or in the plant or at the facility, whatever the case might be. So, from a convenience standpoint, that’s what we’re talking about. I’m going to shift over to Jill, and she’ll talk about relevant content.

Jill: Yeah. From my perspective, unless you’re a little bit of a nerd like I am, you are not really going to want to take training or spend your time reading safety content. It’s just not your favorite thing to do. You’ve got bigger fish to fry in your position. So, when it comes to onsite education, some people don’t even like talking in front of other people; that just makes them sweaty. But if we make that content easy, compliant, accurate, and conversational, it helps. I’m a fan of different science podcasts, and I recently listened to one about how humans process information.

And so your brain likes to use prior information to make sense of new information that’s coming in, and that makes sense. If learners and you are able to attach sense and meaning to something, you’re way more likely to store that information and recall it later. So my goals with safety content are to make it simple to process and to basically hum with real-life examples that make you want to pay attention. So it could even save your life one day. That’s how seriously I take the content that we’re producing at KPA. So whether the topic is first aid, fall prevention, or power tools, it has to be compelling because the safety of you and your employees needs to come first.

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Absolutely. I think that makes a ton of sense. Having a topic that may not be the most engaging means that you have to bring something into it to catch people’s attention and capture that kind of energy so that people want to pay attention. And I think the more that you are engaged and seeing real life examples, the more you’re going to retain. So that makes sense. And with retention, I know that the next most important thing is actually the content of these talks. So when people are gathering for these safety discussions, what should we be honing in on to ensure that we’re addressing the most critical concerns facing our hazardous industry teams?

Taylor: So I’m actually going to start with what I suggest not to do. I know that wasn’t your question, but I’ll get to your question in a second. But maybe what to avoid, and I’m only bringing this up because I’ve seen this done time and time again and I just don’t believe this is the most effective model of delivering relevant and engaging conversation and content to the team. So this idea of you have 52 weeks, so we’re going to do 52 safety meetings this year, and I have this set of 52 documents that are my topics, right? And I’m going to assign those out and I’m just going to kind of randomly do it. Whatever, document five is on this week, document 12 is on this other week, and it’s quick and easy, yes, but it’s certainly not the most effective. And why I say that is the content is not being kind of curated to that point in time, that’s relevant to the work being performed or even the season or the weather, right?

In this use case, why I bring it up is I’ve seen it multiple times where I do this random assigning just kind of quick and easy, and all of a sudden, my entire workforce is doing a heat stress tailgate meeting in November or December. It just doesn’t make sense from a relevant information standpoint. So back to your question, some ways to keep it extremely relevant and engaging and to the point, I would take two approaches here. One would be work-specific topics. So an effective way to approach sourcing of safety topics is to ensure the topic for that week applies specifically to the work being performed. And so if I’m a contractor and I have a bunch of crews out there across the company, and they’re all doing trenching and excavation this week, then obviously, it would make sense to assign or schedule a topic that is applicable to that exact scenario. So that the teams are being informed of potential hazards and ways to mitigate those hazards through that safety meeting.

That’s one way to go about that is really honing in on the work-specific topics that are unique to your field, the job site, the plant, the facility, or whatever the case might be. To this point, we’ve also seen safety teams have success in leaving the topic choice up to the field leader. So in construction, maybe that’s your foreperson, maybe that’s your superintendent. If you, the safety team, have that trust in your field to make that call, that can actually be a very effective way to go about sourcing the most relevant content. That field leader knows the ins and outs of the work being performed at that specific job site because it could be different from job site A to job site B to job site C. Same thing goes in manufacturing and other industries. And so leaving it up to that field leader to make that call, if that trust exists, then I think that’s a very good way to go about it because then you’re ensuring that person is picking the topic that makes the most sense for their individual scenario for their team. So consider that.

And then the other idea would be sourcing or determining which topics to use on which week based on trending data. So addressing trends is this idea of looking at your historical safety data, maybe going to do it for the last three months, and we’re going to look at all of our observations and our near misses and our hazards, and we’re going to slice and dice that data. Obviously you probably need to be using a platform to do this, but if you’re using KPA Flex or the like, you can probably get this data and use that data to see trends. Maybe you see some leading indicators, lagging indicators and use that data to make informed decisions. This informed decision happens to be what we’re going to discuss for the next three or four weeks in our toolbox talks because we’ve seen these trends over the last three months. We’ve seen 75% of all of our injuries are related to hand related injuries. We’re going to talk about hand protection and how to protect your hands doing the work you’re doing. So making those decisions around trending data can be very effective.

Yeah, I would think that having training on something when someone just experienced this or had a near miss of that thing recently would definitely be something that not only would be topical and relevant to what they’re doing in work, but also would probably keep people more captivated because they’re seeing it happen in real time and then seeing it be addressed. So I think that that’s a great way.

Taylor: Absolutely. And don’t be worried about messing up your schedule, right? If you scheduled this thing out for three months and you need to adjust your schedule because you just had that incident last week, and you want the whole workforce next week to discuss this new topic, that’s fine, right? That’s normal. That should be the way it is in my opinion, of being able to adjust on the fly to address the most relevant issues surrounding your business.

Absolutely. And I think like you said, having the field leader make those choices and maybe adjust that schedule and not be afraid to do that, it’s a great way to make these talks feel like they’re more than just a mandatory check box. And I know that’s how a lot of people see these things. So why should team members strive to not just see these as a mandatory checkbox, and how do they understand the benefits that these toolbox talks bring to them as individuals on a job site?

Jill: I think the question behind your question is, why does this matter? Why are safety meetings or tailgate talks important? And I would say you care about your own safety, right?

And I think, generally people want to do the right thing, and I include you all in that category. You’re not rooting for yourself or somebody you know at work to get seriously injured. That’s not your deal. But unfortunately, good intentions are not going to magically keep people safe. So you’ve got to instill habits and take actions. And that’s one of the approaches with KPA’s diverse content. It ranges from tailgate talks to micro training, standalone infographics, and it’s all trying to take and process safety from the abstract to reality.

So we’ve got subject matter experts, communication experts, they’re vetting all of this content. You could read it verbatim if you wanted to, and it would still sound fine. You don’t have to invent any of these safety tracks on your own. So it goes back to that convenience factor that Taylor and I have been talking about, and that ultimately is going to help your organization be effective. Because you want to use resources that add a meaningful safety culture to your organization and collectively, they make it easy on you if you’re a manager and easy on employees as well. So, I’d say that’s why it’s more than a mandatory checkbox. It boils down to people’s lives and how they perform at work.

Absolutely. And I think bringing up the point about you care about your own safety; you’re not rooting for someone to get hurt, I think that’s totally relevant and something that people often overlook when they’re thinking about safety training because they think about it as just something they’ve got to know to be there. But really, it’s about making sure that you get to go home to your family and that your coworkers and everyone else on your team get to go home to their family, and making it easy not only to access but easy to understand can make a huge difference. Do you guys have any other tips on getting everyone involved in making sure that these safety conversations don’t just feel like one-sided lectures?

Taylor: Sure. So over the last five to eight years, early on in our AnchoRock days, part of our deal was we went out there on job sites and, for about six months, observed safety meetings, tailgate meetings, and we would do probably four to five of those at different job sites with different contractors, electrical, mechanical, some general contractors, what have you. And we saw something that was interesting, and maybe this is semi-unique to construction, but it really started from a top-down approach. And when I say top, I’m talking top in the field. So your general foreman, your superintendent, whoever that field leader is, and the applies obviously in a manufacturing plant or manufacturing facility as well. But whoever that field leader is, is where I suggest getting that initial buy-in.

If you can get that person not only excited about this process but engaged and almost to the extent where they feel like they’re a little extension of the safety team, they’re part of this safety community of driving safety in the organization. If you can get that field level leader bought in at that level, then that tends, not always, but that tends to spread to their crews, their teams, the people working below them may look up to them, maybe that our mentor, like I said, not always, but oftentimes, and that can be infectious, right? And that energy can spread amongst the team. And all of a sudden this mundane task of spending 10 to 15 minutes to start the day and just checking that box turns into something a little more. And I do think where it can even go a little further in terms of getting people involved is leveraging technology to kind of take it to that next step. And there are two things that I’ll bring up here.

One is this idea of, well, both are around the device, but one is specifically photos on that device. Time and time again, we see people at the job site; part of their daily job is to take photos of things and document things and upload to this app, upload it to that app, send this picture to this person, send this person to that person, whatever the case is. There are a lot of photos being taken at that job site by that field leader, most likely. And use those photos in the weekly tailgate meeting. Maybe you’re going to look through the last few days of photos and pinpoint three or four observations that maybe you sent off to someone else, or maybe there was a hazard that you documented, or maybe you logged a good catch or something positive, someone doing something from a good safety standpoint. Look through those photos and actually use them as a way to enhance the existing topic.

You’re still going to have your topic for the week. You’re going to go through that topic, and hopefully, that topic’s relevant, it should be, but maybe take it one step further and go through some recent photos of issues, hazards. Maybe it’s also a time to talk about something that wasn’t necessarily safety, but, “Hey, the general contractor brought this up.” A brow in quality, whatever it is. But use those photos on that device to get a little deeper into the conversation and get a higher level of engagement. That’d be one suggestion. And then the other would be all these devices are almost always connected to the web, whether that’s through data, through wifi, out at the plant facility, oil rig, job site, whatever the case is, leverage that connection to enrich the content. With some video I’m seeing contractors across the country.

I worked with a very large electrical out of Minnesota who this was part of their weekly processes. They have their foreman not only review the weekly topic that was standard, and that was required, but they were also encouraged to jump online and look up some manufacturer safety videos for equipment that we’re using this week, right? Maybe we’re using some specialized equipment. All these manufacturers are putting out video content now, right? Content’s the name of the game for a lot of these folks. And so jump on the web, look up Milwaukee, whatever, and watch the three-minute instructional on how to safely operate this saw. Watch out with the team, right? Hold your iPad up; five people, 10 people huddle around and listen and watch for a few minutes. That can really enrich the content of the conversation and take it one step further in terms of delivering uber-relevant content.

Absolutely. And I can see how bringing in video and imagery can help with engagement and things, but can we talk a little bit about the role that visuals and maybe hands-on demonstration or those videos play in driving home these safety points during these meetings, and how can we make the most of them?

Jill: When it comes to content, whether it’s content that you’re creating at your organization or items that I’m creating at KPA, the lesson and the visuals go together. And whether you realize it or not, that’s on purpose. And it’s for two reasons, really. One, most people’s attention span has unfortunately decreased over time. There’s a researcher at the University of California Irvine. Her name is Gloria Mark, and through her studies, she’s found that people’s attention span used to be about two and a half minutes in 2003, but by 2019, we were in the neighborhood of 47 seconds. So it’s definitely retracted a bit. And then the second reason, and this kind of gets a little bit technical, but there’s information that essentially says that we, just as humans, naturally process visuals faster. So you can read about 300 words per minute, but you can process and understand a graphic in 13 milliseconds. So, a much faster rate. Psychology Today has indicated that there’s research that shows that visual cues help us better retrieve and remember information.

So that’s again why the lesson and the visuals go together when you want an optimal content experience. So I talked about how none of us really like reading manuals or written programs, and again, bringing in infographics, signs, demonstrations, and adding that to the content experience, that’s just innately going to better capture your own attention, your coworkers, and your employee’s attention. And then I would say adding in any sort of anecdotes or examples of when things went wrong, those also make a lasting impression. One of my favorite things about our online training is our incident recreations. And so these are basically animated illustrations that recreate an incident. They don’t have any gore in them, so they’re not gross to look at. Or we also include interviews with employees who have gotten hurt, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. And so that helps replay a dicey situation, point out the lessons learned, and really make an impact on people and bring it to the heart, the mind, and helping them do better for themselves.

Absolutely. I think being able to see, one, an interview with an employee who had something happen is going to be so impactful because there’s so much information out there about how if you connect to someone, it’s much harder to not relate to their experience or not to take it to heart. So I think those interviews and then also seeing the recreations of these incidents make it clear to people how they can do things differently. Because I think there are a lot of scenarios where people assume that things are going to be fine, and they would have no idea that it’s not going to go the right way unless they’ve seen the way that it can go wrong. So I think those are some great tools to be able to bring in more engagement and have these things stick in their minds. But are there any other cool tech tools or innovative methods that we can employ to enhance the effectiveness of these safety discussions?

Jill: Yes. I think there are such exciting technologies on the horizon that are going to change how people experience safety content, any type of content really, and all of that collectively, I think, is for the better. There’s a lot of doomsday talk, but I think that AI and predictive modeling can help us know when an organization is heading for trouble and then proactively recommend resources, whether it be tailgate talks or those micro-videos that Taylor was talking about, and it brings it to you when you need it the most.

Another thing, and this is an older technology, but QR codes, I would say, can also offer a more interactive content experience. So you use your phone, that’s always on you, and get patched into a particular type of image or video that can really help you overcome anything that you might be struggling with on-site or in your plant. And even quizzes that assess where learners are at, what they know, what they don’t know. Gamification, I think, can also help people process safety because it makes it a little bit more engaging. It’s kind of a fun game. All of that is really intriguing to me.

Taylor: Yeah. I agree with a lot of what Jill said there. I already said this once before, but I’m still a big believer in video. At some point, I do think we’ll become the mainstay for toolbox talks. Yes, certainly, from a content standpoint, we talked about that. Jill just mentioned that. And delivering the actual content via a prerecorded video, whether that’s crowdsourced online or safety teams start recording videos or folks start using services like KPA and Jill’s team creating the videos. But I think video will become a big piece of the content, but also I think over time, we’re going to start to see, and I’m bringing this up because I’m starting to see this a little bit already, this idea of actually using the phone to record the tailgate meeting itself, and then that video that was recorded, a lot can happen with the video at that point, right? It can be run through AI and machine learning, and visual cues can be picked up. Person A was nodding their head a bunch, so they get it. Person C was looking at their phone the whole time, so they didn’t get it.

And so some of that kind of big brother-y type stuff that’s going to become, whether we like it or not, that will probably become the norm. And there are really good benefits out of it, obviously, other than just logging who’s there, who’s paying attention. But also things that were discussed maybe across if I’m an organization, I have 70 different field leaders, that’s 70 tailgate meetings a week, I can pick up trends of conversation that was happening, run those against each other and realize this is what everyone’s talking about. But no one’s talking about this other thing. And we said to talk about it. And you can really start to see a deep dive into the actual data of these conversations. And so I think this idea of the actual video recording of the tailgate meeting itself could be something to look out for in the future. I don’t think that’s going to become a mainstay in the next year or two, but I think in the next five to 10 years, that recording of it and then running that through some AI and machine learning to extract some analytics could be interesting.

Yeah, that sounds super interesting. And I know that there’s a ton of talk about AI on the horizon and how it’s going to change the landscape of many different jobs. So it’s interesting to see how it’s going to impact the industries that we are in and that we are involved with helping. So, looking ahead, what other changes or advancements can we expect in how we approach safety talks, and how can we stay ahead of the curve in keeping our teams safe and engaged?

Taylor: Sure thing. So we were just talking kind of real advanced or more advanced, five, 10 years out. Actually, I’m going to take one step back and maybe one to two years out approach and timeline is this idea of using technology to help not only deliver the safety talks, we’ve talked a lot about that, but also enable your safety team to actually manage the process effectively. I’ve spoken to a lot of folks over the years about how safety data, including toolbox talk history, can often go into this black hole if an organization is still managing that process on pen or paper or even Excel and PDFs, for that matter. So I’ve given this example: imagine a 300-person electrical contractor who has 60 to 75 field leaders.

Those 60 to 75 people are likely doing a weekly toolbox talk. They’re probably doing a weekly job site safety inspection. Maybe they’re doing a daily JHA or pre-test plan. All of a sudden in that scenario, and that’s not an unheard of scenario from a safety standpoint, from an expectation standpoint. All of a sudden, we’re looking at five to 600 records being submitted on a weekly basis. If you’re the safety team and trying to manage all of that data coming in, very traditional pen and paper methods, I dare to venture to say it’s almost impossible, to be honest. And with that amount of data on paper, it’s almost out of sight, out of mind. What you don’t know, you don’t know, and just hoping for the best. And no one wants to go that route when it comes to safety.

So leveraging technology like KPA Flex to establish this digital process so that not only can your team do it very well and do it at a high level and do it quickly and effectively, but also for your safety teams, your data folks who have to organize that and store that and manage that data. Going this technology route is certainly a shorter term, one to two years out. It’s realistic. It’s going to happen. You’re either probably going to do it now, or you’re already doing it, or you’re going to do it in the next couple of years, but it’s becoming a mainstay. And so that’s kind of more short-term future is where I think this whole safety talk process will go is really getting all in on using technology to not only deliver, to host it, but also to manage all the data that’s coming in.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that that’s a huge note that, and when we talked in February, Taylor when we had you on, you were talking about how you were still seeing a lot of pen and paper in these companies that you were helping, either that or a hybrid where they’re still using some pen and paper and some disparate systems. So I think you’re definitely right that technology is going to be the way it’s going to go. And we’ve covered so much in this conversation, not only for people who are listening to these safety talks and how to stay engaged and how to get the most out of it and make sure that you don’t see it as a mandatory checkbox. But also for these people that are leading these talks in how to set up your topics and how to make sure they’re relevant, how to keep people engaged. So I think we’ve done a great job covering all of that. But are there any final thoughts that you guys have for our listeners? Anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

Jill: Yeah. First I’ll just say thank you all for being with us today. I think it speaks so highly of you as a professional and the fact that you care. I hope that you’ve sort of gathered that compliance and safety are not one-and-done events. There are ways that it can be easier to accomplish with software. And in addition to online training, you got to account for site specifics, and that’s where tailgate talks and other micro content can really be handy for you. So again, that formula is content plus convenience equals effectiveness.

Taylor: Love it. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Absolutely. And, because we had such well-researched guests on the podcast today, we’ve got some sources linked for you guys down in the show notes, so check those out. Thank you, Jill, for getting those together, and thank you both for giving us some great topics and great things to consider. It was great to talk to you both.

Taylor: Great to be here. Thank you.

Jill: Thank you.

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Kat McConnell

Kat McConnell supports KPA's communications team and, during university, spearheaded the creation of the student radio station, fostering a passion for podcasts. Apart from her role, she dabbles in portrait photography, culinary pursuits, and is known for her trivia prowess, earning her the senior superlative of "most likely to be a Jeopardy contestant." Kat is your go-to for Ina Garten recommendations, podcast suggestions, or any un-Googleable questions.

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