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August 21, 2008

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How to become a health and safety consultant – career advice

IOSH estimates that more than 12 per cent of its members have traded corporate life for the consultancy world. Malcolm Clarke, who has almost 40 years’ experience as a consultant, explains why it can be a challenging but highly rewarding career choice.

Staff health and safety managers are an important and visible part of their organisation’s team, directly employed and deeply involved. They develop an intimate understanding of their business, its personalities and issues, and, when it’s time to move on, some of this experience is transferable and some of it isn’t. But this type of work does not suit everyone. Some people choose to become external, or independent consultants and offer their knowledge to dozens of client organisations of every size and type, rather than a single employer.

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While for many people the thought of stepping away from the supportive structure of colleagues and office is a source of trepidation, the consultant experiences a life of self-direction in which no two days are the same.

Thanks to the positive lead taken by IOSH there is now a chartered career path for safety and health practitioners, and that gold standard represents a great challenge and achievement for consultants, and the consultancies they work for. The best-qualified consultants enjoy working with the country’s top blue-chip organisations, setting policies and advising on strategic issues at executive level.

In addition to providing advice and guidance for companies who prefer not to set up an in-house safety department they are often called in to support beleaguered safety departments, or to spot the solutions that others are often too close to see. Set apart from the corporate machine and not interested in company politics, their only agenda is to provide a service that will keep their clients safe, efficient, and within the law, and their employers in business.

It is a type of work that most of us consider from time to time, but unless you have worked as a consultant it is difficult to envisage how the ever-changing faces and issues could form the basis of a fulfilling career. But I would argue it is the diversity that makes it so satisfying. The longer you stay with one company the less experience you get. The same issues and problems come around again and again until you are gasping to be challenged.

Consultants, on the other hand, have the opportunity of working with blue-chip companies in every kind of industry, dealing with accidents, serious safety issues and incidents, and seeing more of these extreme situations in a year than most in-house practitioners see in an entire career. It piles on the experience in a way that is both exciting and demanding.

The bigger picture

For practitioners who are self-motivated and independent by nature, there are many good reasons for moving into consultancy work. You manage your own day and build your own relationships. It is possible to become your client’s policy-maker, sitting on their health and safety committee, and driving policy from the ground upwards. You may have gained very broad-based experience with a lot of companies in a lot of situations, and with that experience you have the opportunity of working at the highest level, reporting to boards and taking an overview role by distilling reports from many locations, to isolating key issues and making recommendations to fix them.

It is wrong to say consultants always work in isolation because we are looking to establish a good sound professional relationship with our clients. I have found that our best relationships are with companies that have existing in-house skills but need outside help to provide either the logistics and national reach, or the oversight of the safety management system.

As ‘outsiders’, consultants are able to see how other health and safety departments work and how they differ; dealing with different cultures and people all the time helps us develop these skills very quickly. It is the difference between working on one management committee and working on ten; if you work on many you can transfer the lessons learned from one to the other, and get an excellent idea of what really is best practice and what just looks like it.

A typical working week will involve some inspections and site visits, a day of writing policies and reports, maybe an accident investigation to do, or a training course or induction to run. The consultant might visit four or five locations in a day, each with a different set of issues and personalities. Even different premises within the same company will differ greatly, and the consultant needs to maintain a grip on these factors.

There are negatives, of course. You occasionally get messed around by clients — like when you travel to a location one day to find that the person you were due to meet is not there, or the work you have come to see has finished. These are frustrations you have to deal with, and sometimes you have to bite your tongue in order to preserve good relations.

There are occasionally situations where consultants need to consider walking away from businesses, perhaps where the health and safety culture is repeatedly poor despite advice being given, or because they know they have only been brought in to show the HSE that some incident or order is being taken seriously. The consultant needs to know when to be firm, and when to be diplomatic. S/he needs to skillfully discern when to mention a matter quietly and tactfully, knowing it will get put right, or when a matter needs further intervention at a senior level. A good consultant will make these choices successfully on a daily basis — some people can do that and others cannot. That is what elevates consultants from the others, in my view — it is a distinct skill set.

Lone wolf or part of the pack?

Many consultants work on short-term contracts, or even as freelancers on an hourly or daily rate. If that meets your lifestyle needs and work expectations that’s fine, and there is a place for that kind of work. As an independent you will need to market your services, maintain and develop those services, and manage your own administrative functions. You also need to consider such eventualities as being off sick for any length of time, stress, finances, and administrative support, as, in this situation, you really are on your own.

Operating within a consultancy rather than as an independent can be a more suitable choice for some people, who feel more comfortable working with other professionals, all with different levels of expertise and experience, and on whom they can call for assistance when necessary. The opportunities for career development within a consultancy are a real positive and, if you choose the right one, you will receive the development opportunities you need to maintain your professional status.

Anyone considering such a move needs to find an employer with a culture that respects the high standard demanded by chartered status, and encourages its staff to pursue it. The questions you need to ask at the interview are: does the consultancy offer continuous professional development and, if so, in what form? How much colleague support can you expect? Are you going to be operating as a single consultant, or will you have a supportive team behind you? Is there a strong peer-review process for verifying the accuracy and legal compliance of your work, or do you have to rely on your judgement alone when preparing reports and recommendations?

The success of any consultancy is not just down to the calibre of the people they employ but also to its culture and management. The culture of a consultancy needs to be so strong that, to some extent, the consultant carries it with him or her, and draws on it for guidance in approaching and dealing with problems and ethical issues. In a direct employment situation mistakes can be glossed over, but consultants are very exposed and need to get it right 100 per cent of the time.

Conclusion

The ethics of responsible consulting determine that we only recommend to the client work that we truly believe they need. The Royal Charter has raised our status and strengthened our ability to influence decision-makers, and assist and encourage our clients to implement exemplary health and safety practice. Consultancy is a challenging and liberating way of building a career but do take a long, hard look at where you might land before you take the plunge.

 

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