Is this Consultant Chalky or Cheesy?

How do you choose a Health & Safety Consultant?

Obviously, you want someone who’s qualified and experienced, it sounds like they know what they’re talking about, and they’re nice and friendly.

Say you’ve found someone and they’ve given you a price for the work, but you’re not that familiar with H&S so how do you know precisely what you’ll be getting?

In their quote, the consultant says vague things like ‘working on policy, risk assessments, training staff’ etc.

But you’re a manager, right? You need to know exactly how things will play out and what you’ll end up with.

The problem is, the consultant has only just visited you for an hour for a chat and a whisk around your premises, so it’s hard without starting some kind of audit to know exactly what will be unearthed.

OK, so the answer is to pay them to do an audit first?

Well, not necessarily – this is where the old adage about a consultant being someone who ‘steals your watch and then tells you the time’ comes from. Often, businesses are very aware of ‘what’s wrong’ e.g. lacking policies, risk assessments, procedures etc., and spending a day or two generating a precise list doesn’t even get started on the solution. Money is tight…let’s cut straight to the solution!

Some Directors/Managers consider their job is to ‘bang the drum’, and in order to do this, they need to know what’s going to be done and how quickly the work will get done.

Most projects have 3 basic elements – Time, Cost and Quality. Change any one, and the others change too.

As the ‘purchaser’ doesn’t generally know what they’re looking at e.g. they wouldn’t know a good risk assessment from a bad one, they feel disempowered from nailing down anything on Quality – but they sure can make up for this by making sure that whatever this mysterious thing you might be doing for them is nailed down in terms of Time and Cost!

If you don’t know what you’re looking at how are you going to check the Quality aspect of the work? If a consultant says you’ll have 10 risk assessments (because you’ve forced them into giving you a number), then how do you know these are any good? Where’s your yardstick for Quality? How do you know that you only need 5, or that 2 others left off the list aren’t the most important?

This whole scenario ignores the fact that ‘fixing’ H&S involves a collaborative set of tasks. From experience, some Clients are very good and will try their best to input their piece of the puzzle, but others are totally absent – lacking commitment, focus, energy etc.

Think about it, you’re asking a contractor to specify exactly what will be produced and when despite the fact that you may not know if it’s any good when it’s delivered, cannot compare ‘like-with-like’ between different consultant quotes and cannot guarantee that you’ll play your necessary part in the process. It’s a bit like going to a counsellor with depression and saying: ‘I want you to tell me exactly what you’re going to do to cure me, with timescales and milestones…but don’t tell me too much because I get confused, and I may not turn up every week…and, by the way, I’m choosing my counsellor based on the one who’s cheapest

Don’t get distracted

An approach that seems to be taken by large national consultancies is to add in features that are totally unnecessary or overplayed e.g.

  • Glossy ‘handbooks’(not legally necessary, and rarely read/followed by the client or their employees),
  • Lot’s of ‘Safe Working Procedures’ (you’d have to check they fit your situation, and then apply, which people generally don’t),
  • Helplines (a key benefit? most local consultants you hire will pick up the phone and answer questions, the difference being they can pop over if it’s not clear).
  • Insurance…but you can only claim if you read and follow to the letter everything that’s in the big folders we’ll be sending you under the guise of ‘helping’.

This is good distraction from the fact that most nationals don’t promise very many visits, which in our experience each client needs in order to steer the effort/progress. The exact number should depend on the risk profile of the company, what you’ve already got in place and how quickly you want to proceed.

So in conclusion:

If you’re a purchaser of H&S services, and you don’t understand H&S then you’ll have to accept that you can only go so far in nailing down exactly what’s going to happen.

The whole exercise will, whether you like it or not, involve an element of trust – but here’s what you can do:

  • Get a recommendation
  • Make sure the person is qualified…try not to buy from a salesman – as nice as they may be, they won’t be the one’s visiting you to deliver the H&S support
  • See if they can make a very quick analysis of what’s wrong with anything you’ve got in place – not hours of work, just a quick scan over and verbal feedback – does what’s said make sense?
  • Make sure that you like them and you think you’re going to be able to communicate well
  • Check their Contract Terms and Conditions – you want to be able to get out quickly if you’ve made a mistake, or try them out on a trial basis first e.g. if they offer an hourly rate
  • Realise that to make the hiring of a consultant worthwhile you’ll have to play your part – the consultant can help you, but can’t replace the effort you’ll need to put in to understand your part in improving things in between visits
  • Sure, get some quotes, and then decide if one looks like chalk and the other like cheese and whether it’s worth paying slightly more for the one you like