Toolbox Talks: 3 questions to ask (and not ask) your workers


The way you ask a question makes a big difference in the response you get. When it comes to Human Performance and safety, you want to ensure you are asking questions in a way that provokes thought and engagement; not just a “yeah, sure” response.

Broadly, you want to ask “open-ended” questions. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes-no.” They don’t lead the person being asked and require an explanation of the answer. Almost every question you might ask can be rephrased into an open-ended question, but to keep it quick and simple, here are three we commonly ask that could use some tweaking:

Don’t ask: Where’s your PPE? This question doesn’t elicit any thought or further explanation. It may also be answered with a simple “yes,” or even it’s not required.” Compliance with safety rules is achieved and the discussion is over.

Ask: Why aren’t you protecting your head/hands/eyes etc.? Answering this question requires more discussion and doesn’t open the door for “I’m meeting the minimum requirements.” You aren’t asking about following the rules; you’re asking about the intent of the rule. Just because it isn’t required doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. If the answer is “I’m not,” then they know they need to defend placing themselves at risk, irrespective of the requirements. Get them thinking about protecting themselves and not just protecting their job through basic compliance.

Don’t ask: Are all the hazards controlled? “Yep.” Would you like to explain? “Nope.”

Ask: How are you controlling all of the hazards/risks? To answer this question, I need to give it much more thought. I need to discuss the specific hazards I have identified and the steps I’m going to take to mitigate them. I’m going to give you much more information which will allow you to evaluate MY assessment of the hazards and risks of the job. You don’t have to assume I have it all covered; I’m going to let you know with a more complete response.

Don’t ask: What will you do if you are unsure about a step or action? This question is asked to elicit the chorus of “Stop and get help” from the workers but lacks specificity.

Ask: What specifically would cause a “stop work?”  Yes, it’s a good idea to remind your workers to “stop when unsure,” but that can be a vague concept. “Stop work” as a safety or Human Performance idea might be different from “stop work” as an action. For example, I’m going to mow the lawn and will stop work if “anything” seems out of place. “Anything” could be “anything” and I hope I notice it when I’m in the heat of the moment. I have a much better chance of recognizing a “stop work” moment if I gave it some thought beforehand. I’m going to stop if the lawnmower starts to smoke, shutter, or run erratically. I’m going to stop if I lose my hearing or eye protection. I’m going to stop if I become thirsty or start to get overheated. I’m going to stop if I encounter unexpected debris in the yard that could become a projectile. Now that I have specific “stop work” conditions, the chances are much better that I will recognize them and actually stop.

Simple yes-no questions might be more expedient but open-ended questions get your workers engaged and get you more complete answers.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.