So You Want to Be a Consultant
The truth of the matter is, many companies hire consultants and end up wasting both their and the consultant's time. This is costly time.
I am sure many of you professional environmental, safety, and health individuals out there are entertaining the possibility of becoming a private EH&S consultant, once you retire from your current EH&S position, or possibly even now due to cutbacks, closings, or just for a change. If you are like me, you enjoy what you do, you believe in what you do, and you have invested the time to learn your trade well. Why wouldn't you want to share all of that knowledge, life experience, and training with others and, hey, make a few bucks doing it. Just being a "consultant" has something of a charismatic sound to it, doesn't it?
After spending more than 30 years working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, both in compliance and then later in the On Site Consultation sector, I retired and entered the private consulting arena. I figured with my years of experience working with the agency so many employers fear -- and truly seek compliance based on that fear -- it would be a slam-dunk job opportunity. My years of field experience, my years of standards application and interpretation, my hundreds upon hundreds of investigations, my years of rubbing elbows with the agencies' shakers and movers in all of those long sessions on standard development, application, interpretation, program development, new direction, and required action training had to be worth something. Even if I hadn't paid attention, by accident I had to learn a thing or two.
So I retired and began Independent Consultation Services, LLC (known as ICS:), my consulting service. Why the "Independent" title? I wanted to suggest my services were not associated with any other agency or any company that provides any other type of product. Strictly independent, between me and my client. The ICS: was sort of a play on the many police investigation shows you've see on TV lately, plus I just couldn't leave behind all of the acronyms I have learned. You know them: OSHA, EPA, NFPA, SST, LEP. I can go on, but I'm sure those of you in the field can add a dozen or so.
I did everything that had to be done. I incorporated, obtained the necessary insurance, had business cards and the fliers printed, set up the office area at home. I was ready, willing, and able. The first year, right out of the chute, business was good, I must admit. Word got out I had retired, and many of my clients were individuals, employers, or employer representatives whom I had met during my time with the agency. I thought, Maybe I should have done this years ago. My own boss, none of that time-consuming paper work to complete: time sheets, where you were, what you did, etc. I was enjoying my decision.
A Harder Time Getting Results
You're probably thinking at this point that it sounds pretty good. I may be leading you into making that move sooner than you thought. You have the experience, the training, the education, and so far, you haven't read anything negative. Well, allow me to explain what I have found and what you may experience if and when you become a private EH&S consultant.
I knew and know my trade. I honestly believe that I can provide the correct and adequate response when it comes to questions of standard (OSHA) application, interpretation, means of abatement, and hazard recognition and can assist in litigation in the event of an issued citation. I also have seen my services work when I was with the agency. Areas of concern I identified during my many inspections were abated, hazards removed -- or, at a minimum, risk factors were reduced. It was very rewarding. That's why we are in the business, right? Why would it or should it be any different as a private consultant?
One of my first clients contacted me to assist in an informal complaint received from OSHA, a letter questioning a number of alleged safety hazards existing at the client's facility. They contacted me and asked how to respond. I went out to the location, reviewed the letter, and looked at the areas of concern. There was some validity to the complaint, but the problems were easily and quickly remedied. We took photos and explained what was done and how the previously areas of concern would be monitored to ensure recurrence would not take place. We responded with the photos and a letter written in the acronyms only the agency would understand -- a very important means of response guaranteeing acceptance. Shortly after, we received a letter from the local OSHA office accepting our findings and the action taken and informing us the case was closed.
It was a win, a "slam dunk." I had proven my services worked and were well received. Life couldn't get any easier. So I continued advertising my services. Through talks to local organizations and client and acquaintance referrals, requests began to flow in. Then something happened. I landed a fairly nice consultant contract with a company looking for a full-time EH&S director. I contacted them and suggested they have a comprehensive survey performed so as to identify and prioritize areas of concern. That way, when they hired the full-time director they were seeking, they would know what they needed to have done and what to look for in that individual. They agreed, and the contract was signed. During this service, I explained I was going to perform a "comprehensive" survey looking at every operational procedure and support service their employees performed.
My findings were somewhat extensive. I was somewhat surprised by the hazards, risk factors, and regulatory violations I found because they'd had an EH&S director for years who recently had left. How could all of these faults exist? I finalized my report and submitted it.
During the meeting, or what may be called the closing conference, we went over my findings. I was asked by the ranking management official whether I would be willing to stay on under a contract provision and assist in abating the noted concerns. I thought about it, drew up a nice contract, and agreed to assist in bringing them into full compliance. I was looking forward to achieving my and their goal.
I began full steam ahead, bringing all of my past experience, knowledge on standard requirements, and acceptable abatement procedures to the table. I was excited. As I continued and held meetings, talking to maintenance personnel and supervisors and showing them what needed to be done, I found not much was being accomplished or completed. I put together all of the required programs, held introductory training sessions, explained responsibilities, and delegated authorities. Everything was in place, but I really wasn't seeing any change.
I couldn't understand what was happening. I mean, when I was with OSHA, I had always seen action taken and had never had much problem getting my findings taken care of. I can recall on one of the accident investigation forms, the supervisor had written "stupid mistake by operator" as the reason for the accident with no mention of the unguarded component I had previously identified.
After bringing these concerns up at every production meeting, I finally requested a meeting with the top dog and informed him these concerns not only could and would result in injuries, but also could bring some large penalties in the event of an OSHA inspection. His response was, "That is why we have you here, to keep them (OSHA) out." I then realized that, although I seen results when I was with the agency, as a private consultant I really had no power. I had lost the "hammer" I once had. I also quickly realized clients of a private consultant can decide what they want to do when it comes to my suggestions; I have no direct authority with any of my clients.
That lack of power or lack of management authority to mandate changes is part of being a consultant. That powerless position when you know things need to be done is somewhat disturbing and frustrating. I remember driving home asking myself how I could get this organization to respond. What am I doing wrong? What can I do?
The truth of the matter is, so many establishments, so many companies, hire consultants and end up wasting both their and the consultant's time, either because of their management set-up or the fact they really do not know how to use the consultant. This is costly time, I might add.
Advice for Both Consultants and Clients
Now, please don't accept this as the norm. I have many clients out there who have truly understood what a consultant provides and how to use one's services. Many of my clients have changed their safety and health culture completely based on my findings and recommendations. They knew what they wanted, how to use the guidance they paid for, and what questions to ask.
If you are considering becoming a private consultant, be prepared. Accomplishments you may have had in a previous position may not be as easy to achieve as a private consultant. Be prepared to provide a service or guidance, just to have it placed on a shelf. Don't take it personally.
As a future client, or if you as an employer are considering using an outside consultant, know what you want to achieve, what you want that service to accomplish. Be realistic. Remember, consultants are just that, consultants. They are not administrators, they are not part of and should not be part of your management structure. You need to take their guidance, their knowledge, and their recommendations and implement those into your system. If not, you are wasting each other's time.
When you do that, it's sort of like buying that piece of exercise equipment, putting it in the corner, never using it, and then saying, "It didn't work."
Have a safe day.