Many small businesses reach a point in their growth when the need for health and safety advice becomes important. The reasons vary – it may be the company reaches certain critical points that trigger legislative requirements, the owner/manager simply no longer has the time due to the general growth of the business or simply because as the company grows health and safety questions become more complex. Another factor that I’ve noticed in recent years is large companies requiring more in depth safety management systems from even the smallest supplier as part of an attempt to minimise their own liabilities as part of their contractor vetting programme.
Within the UK – companies with 5 employees need to start recording risk assessments and require health and safety policies but even without legislation most companies reach a point where they accept a need for professional safety advice. Now that point may simply be when they reach a point of needing safety documents or it may come a few years later as the company grows and safety needs become more complex than the management are immediately comfortable with.
As we travel around the globe we find different laws, different levels of professionalism and varying qualifications are linked to health and safety. For small companies attempting to locate their first health and safety consultant it can be an expensive mistake if the wrong Consultancy is employed. So how do you get the decision right first time?
Competence and Qualifications – Whilst exams and certificates aren’t the only factor they tend to be a good starting point. In recent years “safety consultants” have grown like mould – unfortunately many are seriously lacking in any formal qualification and others have the paper but little real world experience. The term health and safety consultant is not “protected” in any of the industrial nations thus too many people with a new business card and website appear as experts – but all too often they have little by way of qualifications and/or experience. Every country has its own qualifications but do check and find out what those qualifications are. In the UK – IOSH is the largest professional body and there is a national register of safety consultants run in partnership with the government and HSE; www.oshcr.org. This requires the consultants to be fully qualified (the register has an equivalency scheme between the main safety institutes so regardless of where they became qualified you can rest assured they are qualified).
Experience: Alongside qualification it’s another must have. Fresh faced 20 somethings fresh out of college with a degree in safety may have a bright future but with little experience their value as a consultant can be limited. Traditionally good consultants learnt their trade somewhere in a full time role – how to find the right compromise, how to make safety work in the real world – and received support from more experienced colleagues whilst they made their own mistakes.
Sector Knowledge – It’s always helpful when the consultant can speak about your industry from the beginning – but equally a good consultant has seen a wide variety of workplaces over the years and can quickly apply the basic principles to any company. More important than immediate experience of your industry is whether they grasp the basic principles of your business quickly. To me whilst you always learn things in new business and sectors a lot of knowledge is transferable – machine guarding is common regardless of whats being processed.
Fear – the moment a consultant uses fear to sell walk away. Anyone who talks about jail, fines as the only justification for using them is struggling. Yes we all know the law is part of the reason you’re looking for a safety professional but any body can quote law – a good safety advisor will lead you through a broader set of reasons that include law but not in isolation – people not getting hurt being the principle factor to start from.
Cost: Don’t be misled by low day rates, cheap initial safety audits – it’s not what you pay per hour that matters it’s what you get for your money that matters. The old sales technique of getting your foot in the door with an offer and then upselling is just as common in safety as elsewhere.
Two Way Conversations – a good consultant will talk to you before starting or even quoting. I like to know what a client thinks they need, how they view where they’re at and how much budget there is as typical starting points. Every client is different – every client has unique challenges and solutions. Whilst budgets need to be flexible; a good consultant will look to find a way to maximise your spend in terms of outputs and solutions for your business.
Like – it’s a weird word for business – but “do I like or at least respect the consultant?” is key. If you understand what they say – they understand you and attempt to make any advice fit into your business then it’s a good beginning. You need to work with them so make sure thats possible before making your selection.
Initial Documents – this is where you really can tell if you’ve made the right choice – it may not be ideal but if you’re unhappy now then things will only get worse as time passes. Things to be wary of – if documents look like they’ve been cut and paste they probably have (safety reports and safety policies are the worst offenders); if you don’t really understand the work because its written in legalese (or just endless warnings of jail and fines) then it’s time to re consider because the chances are that it will end up destined to be unread; equally if there’s no attempt to understand business pressures and needs then again it may be time to get a second opinion. A quick test I always use is to simply do a word search in Word or whatever software you use. Think of typical words that are key to your business and see if they exist (for example working for a car repair workshop – check words like vehicle repair, ramp, oil – dumb I know but when none show up bar the most general sense than its a generic policy).
If you find the right safety consultant they’ll work with you to make your workplace safer and it should feel like everyone’s got the same goals – get the right consultant and it can be a relationship that grows with your business. Nothing lasts forever and everything has its own lifespan – but long relations mean they remember the past, remember where you came from and best of all develop relationships with you and your staff – and relationships are key to most things at the end of the day.
But in summary ensure they are competent, will deliver and you feel you can develop a “relationship” with – or at the very least they can solve you immediate needs.