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A Can of Soup: What We Say and How We Say It

If you look closely at the label on a can of soup, you likely will notice the ingredients section, which lists the soup’s contents from those with the greatest volume or weight down to the ingredient with the lowest volume or weight. This information is good to know before you decide whether to buy the can of soup.  

If you ask senior executives of a utility or contractor what their company goals or ideal “top ingredients” are, you often will receive responses such as “outstanding customer service,” “maximum return on investment” or “the best value for our customers.” And if you ask that same question to members of middle management or frontline workers, you’ll probably hear something along the lines of “keeping customers happy by keeping the lights on” or “making the bid units.”

These are admirable goals and valuable ingredients in the success of any utility organization, but are they the most critical ones? That’s debatable. Personally, I believe that protecting our most valuable resource – that is, our employees – should without a doubt be job No. 1, our top priority and the right thing to do.

As part of protecting our employees, one thing we must do is provide them with the right information about what is important for them to accomplish each workday. Where do our employees get this information? They receive direction from their leadership, but sometimes the wrong message may be delivered to them. Here’s an example of a somewhat common message employees hear from leadership: “We need to change out two hot poles today. We will have to work hard to get that done and, by the way, make sure you stay safe while you’re executing the job.”

What exactly are we telling our employees when we deliver a message like that? Unfortunately, we’re telling them that getting the job done is more important than employee safety.

From the top down, our employees deserve to hear powerful safety messages each day, such as, “Your job today is to save a life. That life might be yours, or your co-worker’s, or the life of a member of the public, but that job is job No. 1 today.” As safety leaders – and each of us is a safety leader, no matter our job title – we need to encourage our companies to focus on protecting our most important assets by highlighting “safety first” messages in all types of media and communication. We also must start every conversation in such a way that our employees know, without a doubt, that their safety and the safety of their co-workers are the top ingredients in our company’s proverbial can of soup.

The bottom line is that our employees need to approach every task during their workday with the attitude that they are going to perform that task in the safest way possible. For that to be possible, they must know without question that all levels of their company’s leadership truly support them in using safe work practices. A utility’s or a contractor’s mission and vision statements should make it clear that the first ingredient in the company’s “soup can” is protecting their employees – and through that, the company can work to accomplish its other goals.

Let’s make this a reality in all of our work organizations. Because if we don’t do it, who will?  

About the Author: Mack Turner, CUSP, is the executive director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction ( He has more than 25 years of experience in the electric, gas and communications utility industry, specializing in safety, risk and leadership disciplines with a focus on positive cultural change. Turner also is president, board chairman and a founding member of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network (, the sponsoring organization of the Certified Utility Safety Professional credential program.

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