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SLC 2017: Hurricanes, Safety, and a Culture of Empathy

Dec. 19, 2017
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey's destruction, H+M Industries demonstrates how true safety leadership begins with a solid sense of empathy.

"I wouldn't be here if not for a hurricane."

These words, launching Jay Bice's keynote speech at the 2017 Safety Leadership Conference last month, rang true in every direction.

Hurricanes were a specter behind every session, every tour, and every event at this year's show. The annual conference met in November, one month later than expected due to a savage uppercut landed by Hurricane Irma up the Atlantic Coast in October. And that storm, of course, was the second in a one-two punch of destruction that began in Bice's backyard when Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas gulf coast.

Bice is the HSE manager at H+M Industries EPC, a 2017 America's Safest Company winner headquartered in Pasadena, Texas. That address means Bice and his company were directly impacted by the storm and deeply involved in the recovery efforts that followed.

For a conference dedicated to safety and corporate responsibility, which was itself disrupted by storms, Bice's was perhaps the most hard-hitting message of the week.

It began with a catalog of destruction.

"As safety professionals, we all want zero fatalities," he said. "But Harvey saw 82."

The Houston area, he noted, received over 50 inches of rainfall in the category 4 storm, resulting in nearly $200 billion in damages to Houston and the surrounding areas. In total, some 135,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and saw about 780,000 Texans evacuated.

The storm, Bice said, hit the company where it really counts. It hit the headquarters, of course, and it hit clients and equipment in the field all through the region. But more importantly, it hit the employees—it flooded their homes and communities, it disrupted their lives, it hit their families and neighborhoods.

"We had six employees that lost everything," he said.

And that is where Bice's message really hit home.

H+M's post-Harvey cleanup crew in action.

Preparing for a storm like this is really just a matter of good safety practices—preparations and protocols to secure facilities and equipment. Dealing with the aftermath, though, took something a little more special.

Once Harvey settled, Bice recalled, the company received a message from owner Larry Hogan that set in motion a process that would soon come to define the heart of the company.

"Larry Hogan send out an email that said the office is going to open and asked any employee that could make it to come in," Bice said. "He also asked any employee that couldn't make it in to let him know what they needed so we could help."

The second part of that message launched a response that should serve as a strong lesson for any company.

As EHS Today has reported, H+M employees waded into the post-Harvey recovery efforts with a united force determined to restore the area not just for its employees and their families, but for the community as a whole.

Those efforts included:

  • H+M sponsored a pizza party for an evacuee center of primarily foster kids in Pasadena, Texas.

  • H+M employees volunteered their time and energy to help affected H+M employees clean-up their homes after the hurricane.

  • H+M team members banded together with First Baptist Christian Academy students to help demo houses in the local community that were devastated by Harvey.

  • A small group of employees set-up a GoFundMe to support coworkers who were impacted by Harvey. They intend that the funds collected from this campaign go directly to H+M employees in need. Donations will cover the cost of food, shelter, medical expenses and other necessities for members of the H+M family.

  • The H+M Young Professional Group, The Foundation, is volunteering at the Houston Food Bank to help them inspect, sort and repackage food donated to help deal with the aftermath of Harvey.

And this, I think, was the real lesson from Bice's keynote.

H+M's response to the storm espouses everything that the Safety Leadership Conference stands for: do whatever it takes to keep people safe and well.

Doing that goes beyond just guidelines and best practices, beyond training and certifications. It's about values and culture. It's about, as Bice said, caring. It's about empathy.

"Our Owner didn't get flooded, but he knew that his employees had a burden," Bice said. "Because of the empathy that he and his top managers showed, we were all able to rally around."

That sense of empathy, he says, has permeated the entire H+M safety culture.

"This is how I coach up my employees—they've got to have empathy," Bice said. "We don't want to be safety copes; empathy goes a lot further."

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