How you can run effective pre-start meetings

Pre-Start meetings or Toolbox talks are interactive sessions that help focus a workforce on safety and productivity for that next shift. They take place prior to the beginning of a work shift to ensure everyone in that working area is fully aware of activities, hazards/controls and general information that is relevant to them while on site. It’s also an opportunity for an organisation to ensure that its entire workforce is fit for duty. These meetings also fulfil your legal obligations.

Unfortunately, pre-start meetings and toolbox talks can be a deadly-dull talk-fest, with team members tuned out and bored, they can leave workers ill-informed and could negatively impact the safety and well-being of everyone involved and they could ultimately represent a waste of everyone’s time.

If it’s your job to run effective meetings, we’ve compiled these handy tips to help you ensure that your meetings are a great investment of time and remain an effective way to convey your safety and operations messaging to the rest of the team.

Engagement is Key

If it’s your job to run the Pre-Start meeting, it is your responsibility to give your audience a reason to listen and pay close attention. The good news is that ensuring audience engagement and interaction is a technique or skill that you can learn and master over time.

Engagement or interaction is the combined result of your content (how interesting and relevant it is) and how the meeting is conducted (your style) and how it is managed (order/structure).

Managing a meeting well involves planning ahead of time, careful selection of fresh relevant content, identifying vital information to communicate, your positive tone and energy displayed, and what topics you will ask the crew using effective open ended questions that generate the crew’s engagement and interaction.

Open Ended Questions are vital

Open ended questions create opportunities for team members to take the initiative and think through business issues or problems, engage them in active learning and problem-solving, and cause higher-order reasoning such as analysis and evaluation of complex situations. Well-thought-out open ended questions lead a team to a more innovative process and strengthen an employee-manager relationship.

Open ended questions like:

“How do you feel this process has been improved?” or, “Why are we needing to set up the job site in this manner”? or “what is this policy or process achieving when we install this device”? or “What do you think is behind the current increase/decrease in this trend we are seeing which is of great concern?”

These require both parties to think strategically and acknowledge the deeper meaning behind issues that need to be addressed. These questions show that both parties are actively engaged in a solution. A detailed question has to be backed by data just as much as the explanation needed for it. So, leaders and employees in the position to ask are already participating in strategy and research.

Open ended questions that start with or use “what,” “why,” and “how” are best practice. These compel team members to think and dig deeper and come up with innovative ways to respond and solve a problem. These types of questions force people to describe the situation or matter that has been topic within the question.

Often asking broad brush stroke open ended questions are met with silence, so you would be wise to ask more specific people or smaller crews specific questions about specific tasks or details or incidents or areas of the work site that you want to focus on.

Open ended questions help you drill down and get to the heart of the issue and allow leaders to see people work through problems and analyse situations. This facilitates and strengthens team development. Business leaders need to decide the impact of each question they ask. It is impossible to predict responses, but open-ended questions should have an end goal. There should be a strategy and design for the questions selected, generally to drive home a key point or finding.

We should avoid closed questions that are typically responded to with a “yes” or “no” answer. These closed questions are generally ineffective. People will almost always ‘save face’ and say what they think you want to hear. Closed questions like “does everyone know what they are doing today” are virtually useless as you will generally get a “yes” to save face and often, great embarrassment.

Interaction with the crew in these meetings should become ‘the norm’. We do this to ensure those attending the meeting are present (not half asleep, but thinking about the job before them and not issues at home or dreaming about fishing), we also engage with the crew to check for their understanding (regarding the details of any task/job or part of the site they are working within), and in doing so we are also providing opportunity for them to raise any concerns or issues they might not otherwise have known or discussed with any leadership on site.

If you are new at running these meetings, start of by planning to ask 4-5 open ended questions each meeting, then keep adding more each day or week so you end up engaging the workers frequently right across the duration of the meeting (perhaps every 30-60 seconds of the meeting).

Plan your meeting ahead of time

Pre-Start meetings or Toolbox talks should be brief and held regularly. Many workplaces hold pre-starts twice daily (start of every new shift) and toolboxes weekly, although if you are in a high risk, hazardous environment, and constant rotation of contractors coming in and out of your workplace, you might consider holding more frequent meetings. They usually run anywhere between 8 up to 15 minutes in duration.

First, draw up an agenda. Items to plan for include your goals of the meeting, the list of topics you’ll cover, when and where it will be held, and make sure you allow time for contractors and workers to provide feedback on any workplace health and safety issues they have. While some organisations have templates for these meetings, there is nothing wrong with mixing up the order to keep things fresh. It might be wise to seek approval with your supervisor/manager.

Familiarise yourself with your topic. When you know your material well, you’ll be more relaxed when talking about it and curly questions won’t throw you off easily either.

Finally, you should plan for how you’ll get your meeting back on track if it wanders off-course. If you’re faced with someone who keeps interrupting, be direct and firm that the meeting has to move forward and let them know you are open to discussing the issue with them after the meeting has ended.

If needed, set some ground rules for your meetings that would indicate that all interactions from those in the meeting should be delivered respectfully, their input should be constructive (positive and helpful finding a good outcome to the issue being discussed), and their contributions should be relevant to the agenda items you have predetermined for the meeting.

Be clear what you’re trying to achieve

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else, and you’ll set a bad example for others and no doubt receive some constructive and embarrassing feedback from your supervisor/manager. Like all meetings, you need to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and share this information with people attending your pre-start/toolbox meeting.

Often, people use these meetings to encourage behavioural change. If this applies to you, knowing what questions might you ask your colleagues and team members? What other important points can be raised? What techniques will you use to keep the engagement levels up?

Reinforce your key messages. You can check how well your messaging is understood by asking open ended questions or asking your participants to repeat back information or give you examples of what your meeting covered, for example, hazards and how to avoid and control them. Towards the end of your meeting, do a wrap-up to reinforce important safety points.

Mix up your content

The point of these meetings is to share timely and important information about the workplace, safety and other topics that might affect your audience. Content might include specific job safety instructions, changes in job procedures and work practice, changes in rules, changes to the layout of the worksite, processes and regulations, equipment, client expectations and other relevant information.

Give examples of experiences you and others might have had that help focus the topics so they are directly relevant to the work everyone does and demonstrate your points by incorporating interactivity. For example, ask “Who else has experienced something similar?”, or “What effect would that have on us?” While statistics are good, stories are even better.

Avoid repetition. Repeating yourself over and over leads to disengagement by your audience. Having said that, it is helpful to provide a brief summary at the end of the meeting.

Opening your meeting with positive feedback that reflect on the wins or successes from the last shift is important. While you are there, reflect on the learning from last shift too. Are there safety role models or actions taken that can be singled out for recognition? You’ll create a great first impression by recognising team members who have actively worked to keep their workplace safe. A simple certificate, printed in-house, and delivered in front of their peers can be a very powerful symbol and reinforce to everyone the priority the organisation places on safety.

Using examples and real equipment makes safety more tangible and engaging.

Think ahead about your method of delivery – keeping messages positive and mixing up your content helps engagement.

Delivery style does make a difference

Keeping your presentation style informal yet professional, positive and conversational will help enormously with ensuring the effectiveness of your toolbox meeting. Make and keep eye contact – and never just read out information to people. Nothing is more boring than being read to for any length of time.

Nobody wants to be ‘talked at’ either, so encourage participation from others to keep the meeting interactive. Asking open-ended questions is a great way to get others talking (what and how are great question starters). Another tip is to ask questions early while everyone is still fresh. Keep your language simple and short and avoid industry jargon and slang.

By letting others contribute, while you nod or smile in acknowledgement, you’ll encourage further discussion that leads to positive change. If it’s relevant, you can always ask for more information from participants to keep the discussion moving forward and, because you’ve carefully planned your meeting, you will have strategies up your sleeve to take back control if the meeting wanders off-course.

It is important to always give the workforce what they crave. We all crave respect; we want to know that what we are doing is important and is valued (has purpose). We all appreciate acknowledgement and praise (so thank them whenever you see something good). We also want connection or relationship with others, especially with those in higher roles or positions than ourselves (so give of your time, talk to them, not only about the task at hand, but about life too).

Finally, practice ahead of time so that you are feeling extra confident about your delivery.

Rotating the meeting management role

Increasingly in organisations, everyone is considered a safety leader. Some organisations use this principle as the basis for rotating the role of toolbox or pre-start meeting leader amongst different team members. This might be a great way to reinforce safety leadership at an individual level, develop an appreciation for the effort that goes into planning and managing a toolbox meeting, and encourage everyone to learn valuable leadership skills. It also provides a direct incentive to everyone to pay attention in toolbox meetings, so that they are prepared when it’s their turn.

By mixing up who delivers toolbox or pre-start meetings, you take advantage of individual approaches and perspectives, and allow for innovation by different team members. While one person might be interested in structure, another might be interested in statistics and so a natural by-product of rotating the role is that content remains fresh and engaging.

It’s also good to have more than one person running and presenting the meeting. This ads variety and keeps the crew alert as their attention moves from one person to another. So if you have two to four or more capable presenters that can contribute and a relevant way that ads value, involve them.

Final words

Don’t wing it. Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance every time, so invest adequate time in preparing a highly valuable, informative and engaging meeting. It’s an important part of your role, duty and responsibility.

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