When Caring Saves Lives

This week, when more than 30 tornadoes tore through Kentucky and Illinois devastating hundreds of miles, destroying buildings and hurling vehicles with 150 MPH winds, leadership, training, communication and preparedness all came into play. But above all, caring mattered the most when it came to saving lives.

The stories of wreckage are heartbreaking and miraculous. On one hand, an entire nursing home was leveled, yet incredibly all 100 patients and employees survived. The vast majority of credit going to the home’s employees, some of whom literally draped their bodies over residents to protect them.

On the other, more than a dozen people lost their lives at an Amazon warehouse and a candle factory. While the CEO of the candle factory denies it, employees have now filed a class action lawsuit saying supervisors told them they would be fired if they left. Amazon says employees were allowed to have phones, but some are saying that a cell phone ban may have contributed to the deaths. The lack of preparedness and poor communication raise some rather profound questions about leadership. At what point do people look around and stand up for what is right — the safety of fellow employees and clients.

As global temperatures rise, climate related disasters will increase. Tornadoes that historically rarely kill will become ferociously deadly and happen “out of season”. Flood waters will rise faster. Wild fires have become fiercer and more frequent. We may find ourselves at work more often when these happen. As a result, workplaces need to take disaster preparedness and response much more seriously and ask tough questions about their physical plant, their policies and their communication practices.

When disaster strikes at work

I vividly remember being a young consultant assigned to a project at a hospital in Minneapolis. On our first day, we learned that it was in “tornado alley” and given very specific instructions about where to go and what to do when the sirens went off. They actually ran a drill a few weeks later. I took it about as seriously as a fire drill in high school (ie, not very). Then one day, the sirens went off. The loudspeaker confirmed this was not a drill. The entire hospital sprang into action. Patients were pulled into hallways. Safety doors and screens shut. Lifesaving equipment tethered to backup battery packs for the NICU and ICU. Communication was crystal clear. You could tell that this team had practiced for this moment over and over. The tornado touched down several miles away, but it gave me a newfound appreciation for the value of practicing for emergencies. I was not surprised to read that the Kentucky nursing home had practiced a drill with the staff earlier that day, just in case. Workers at Amazon say they had scant training and no drills.

Protecting lives over productivity

Besides practice, clear policies need to be regularly communicated about the primacy of protecting lives over productivity. Employees should know that they can leave in an emergency if they feel like they will be safer somewhere else, with no risk to their job. Middle managers need to know that it’s OK to cancel a shift or send people home to protect lives, even if the emergency ultimately fades away. In New England, we get blizzards. Some people don’t mind driving in the snow and have proper snow tires. Others are terrified. A blanket policy just doesn’t work. Employees and managers need to feel empowered, and safe, to make the decision best for their safety before it’s too late. 

Leaders also need to face up to some grim realities about their physical plants and climate risks. Many buildings are not designed to withstand the extremes of weather that are becoming more common. Employers need to get their real estate and facilities teams to ask tough questions. Can the walls withstand 200 mph+ winds? Is there enough protected space for the number of people needing to shelter? Are fire breaks adequate?  Is there a system for communicating real-time with people who need to take shelter, including contractors?

Post-disaster plans are about caring too

Last, but not least, does the company have a strong post-disaster plan? WeSpire has worked with customers after hurricanes, floods, fires and tornadoes to galvanize employees to volunteer and give rapid aid to local not for profits. But we’ve also seen creative uses to share much needed information, collect opinions, enable voting on ideas, provide mental health support and other actions that drive ongoing workplace recovery and resilience.

No one knows exactly what we will face, as leaders or employees, in the future. But we can prepare for the worst, knowing that preparation can make the worst a whole lot less bad.

Quote of the Week: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin

Author’s Note:  This is the last Saturday Spark of 2021. I want to wish all of our readers a very healthy, safe and restful holiday season and say thank you for being part of this community of readers who care about purpose, business and leadership. Your notes, forwards and shares mean the world to us. See you back in 2022!

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