A ship’s crew works in a range of dangerous situations.

The job schedule on ships includes many critical tasks such as enclosed space entry, tank cleaning, bunkering, working at height, working overboard, hot work and maintenance tasks on critical equipment.

Even seemingly simple tasks like painting can become hazardous on ships when it has to be done while working overboard, at a height, in enclosed spaces or in dangerous weather conditions.

Ship in heavy weather
Ship in heavy weather

These tasks must be performed with the utmost caution as any mishaps could result in serious consequences for the involved crew, machinery, vessel and/or the environment.

The risks involved must be assessed and minimized to a reasonable degree prior to starting the job.

This is because, due to the nature of the trade, seafarers cannot avail medical facilities as easily as those working ashore. The treatment of minor or major injuries typically has to wait for the next port of call.

The job profile demands that the crew works as safely as possible even if it takes a little longer.

Safety, therefore, is of paramount importance on ships. To that end, ship crews use a variety of safety tools and techniques to minimize the occurrences of accidents and safety incidents onboard.

Toolbox talk is one such safety tool. In this article, we shall discuss what it is, its different parts and how we can integrate it into a ship’s routine to take full advantage of it.

What is a toolbox talk?

A toolbox talk or toolbox meeting refers to a preparatory meeting that occurs before starting an important maintenance job. In this meeting, the officer-in-charge discusses the maintenance job with the crew performing it.

The objective is to inform the maintenance crew about the correct way to carry out tasks, identify hazards and mitigate them and prepare for relevant contingencies.

Toolbox talk
Toolbox talk

Studies have shown that the toolbox talks can reduce the occurrences of safety incidents by up to 82% when they are carried out daily instead of monthly [1]. The meetings are most effective when carried out just before the scheduled job begins.

A toolbox talk refreshes a crew member’s understanding of the job risks, especially if it is an infrequent task.

Critical jobs that occur once every few months need to be evaluated every time as many pertinent factors may also have changed since the last event.

Such appraisal is crucial to prevent accidents, incidents, near misses and technical mistakes.

Important toolbox meeting procedures

The toolbox meeting onboard ships is a universal method to improve seafarer safety.

A large number of shipping companies have integrated it into their ship schedule as the first task of the day.

Surprisingly however, there still remain many ships and crews that are unaware of this tool. In this section, we shall list the various actions that must be a part of a toolbox meeting for it to be productive. These are:

  • Job discussion
  • Risk assessment
  • Minimization of risks
  • Use of a valid work permit

Job discussion

The toolbox meeting must discuss the job at hand, the need for it and when it was last performed. The supervisor divides the tasks into subtasks and delegates them to the relevant crewmember. If needed, he goes over the task with the crew member performing it.

Besides safety factors, they may discuss topics such as the appropriate tools/spares required for the subtask.

The supervisor must, however, be careful about not dividing the main task into too detailed or long subtasks.

During the discussion, the supervisor can also verify whether the crew’s PPE is appropriate for the maintenance task.

For instance, the crew may need additional PPE such as a face shield for grinding operations but not for disassembling machines.

Risk assessment

This is probably the most critical aspect of any toolbox talk. The toolbox talk format must have provisions for carrying out a diligent risk assessment. This provision is often known as a Task-based risk assessment or TBRA.

A TBRA (or simply RA) is mandatory for critical tasks such as enclosed space entry, hot work, working at height, lifting of loads and critical equipment maintenance (main engine, boiler, heat exchanger, emergency generator, etc.)

For a comprehensive RA, it is highly recommended that the supervisor review the last time the job at hand was performed, any safety incidents, critical near misses, accidents, and the corrective measures put in place to prevent a recurrence.

Such a review must be done with all the crew involved and preferably at the job site. This method is important to identify all the risks and hazards involved in the maintenance task.

Risk meter

The supervisor must look beyond predetermined checks.

He may have to review changes in working conditions and add hazards as necessary. For example, crew members that do not understand English very well may have to be explained in a language that they know better.

However, any changes on the RA form must be discussed with senior officials as well as the maintenance crew.

The supervisor lists down all the involved hazards, even those that are a part of the subtasks.

Minimization of risks

In this step, the supervisor begins putting control measures in place for each of the hazards.

Training, PPE and administrative controls are among the most common controls that minimize risks in workplace operations. But an effective superior looks beyond these for complete coverage.

Every risk must be mitigated. He/she may use the hazard control hierarchy of elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering control, administrative control and PPE for selecting the most appropriate control method.

Lockout tagout is a very good example of an effective control method for mitigating risks when working on dangerous machinery.

It is better to put the control measures in place as you go through the hazards rather than at the end of RA. At the end of it, the supervisor must discuss the list of hazards and their control measures with the maintenance crew.

5x5 risk matrix

If the risk remains medium or high even after placing controls, further mitigation must be done. If it is not possible, the job must be avoided altogether.

Use of a valid work permit

Work permits are a recommended and often necessary step in carrying out critical maintenance tasks. The permit must be filled during the toolbox talk and all necessary authorization must be obtained prior to starting work.

For most jobs, it may be enough to get the authorization from the Chief Engineer or the Captain.

But for more hazardous tasks such as hot work on tanker vessels, authorization from the owners or the ship management company is usually mandatory.

A work permit often requires that we attach the conducted risk assessment with it. A copy of the permit must always be posted at the job site with the permit validity (date and time) clearly mentioned on it.


Today, toolbox meetings have become an integrated part of the onboard maintenance procedures. Typically, the senior management discusses the jobs for the next day at the end of the current work day.

The Top 5 and the Bosun attend this meeting in most vessels. The responsible engine or deck officer discusses the specific job again the next day with the crew performing it prior to its start.

Toolbox talk is a highly effective tool in ensuring safety when working in inherently hazardous work environments. It provides many advantages at a fraction of the cost and time of other safety tools.

It works great to combat complacency and lack of knowledge among seafarers. Just ensure that you keep the talk engaging, interactive, positive and safety-oriented to get the most out of it.


Related read: Lockout Tagout (LOTO): 6 Steps to Use it Effectively for Safe Ships

Related read: 12 Parts of a Marine Engine Explained With Pictures



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