What does it take to be an independent safety consultant?”

Having been in this full-time role for about a decade, I know what it takes, and as a result, people are increasingly turning to me for answers.

Thank you, Doug

I owe my transition to the world of independent consulting to a man named Doug. I met Doug nearly 25 years ago when he worked for OSHA, and even though he cited the company where I worked for several violations, I liked him, and we became friends. The plant where I was employed was experiencing hard times, and when it was about to close, I jumped ship for another job in town. To my surprise, Doug left OSHA to take my old job. When the plant closed within a year, Doug bought up all the industrial hygiene and safety equipment for pennies on the dollar and started his own independent consulting business.

Sometime later Doug died in an auto accident. Knowing my background, his wife contacted me to see if I could provide consulting for a friend’s small company. Since I already had a full-time job as a corporate industrial hygienist, I checked with my boss who said, “What you do with your own time is up to you, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our business.”

To this day, I still consult for that small company. The work was easy, the pay was good, and it opened me up to accepting other part-time consulting gigs — all while I remained employed in a full-time capacity for a large corporation.

Thank you, large corporation

About ten years ago, my corporate IH job was eliminated when our business was acquired by another company, but no problem — the loss opened the door for me to become a full-time consultant. When I informed the acquiring company of my new direction, they were very helpful, and we entered into an annual contract where I provided a minimum of 60 hours of consulting each month. As a result, I did less work as a consultant and got more pay than when I was an employee. Within two years, the consulting projects wound down and hours were no longer guaranteed. By then, however, my roots as an independent consultant were firmly planted.

Thank you, ISHN

Independent means I run my own business. Since I wanted to consult more than I wanted to manage a business, I chose early on not to have employees or co-owners. When I need help with a project, I bring in others to act as my associates.

I don’t advertise to get consulting work; people just call me when they need help. This makes for some anxious times — feast or famine — in consulting lingo. But if I don’t advertise, how do I let people know I’m available?

One way is by simply staying active in my profession. Take, for example, writing this article. Someone may read it and say, “Let’s give him a call.” This is exactly what happened about five years ago when a company that provided ISO 9000 consulting was asked to bid on a project that also included safety auditing and consulting on VPP. They didn’t know what VPP meant, so they searched the Internet, found one of my articles on the topic and called me. Over the last five years, I’ve billed them about $75,000 on that long-term project.

Thank you, friends

I’ve flown with Brian in his plane, ridden horses with Nancy, gone whitewater rafting with Pat, ridden bikes with Gordon, gone golfing with Eric and later this year, John and I will backpack the Grand Canyon. These are just a few examples of friendships that started off as clients or work associates.

Most of my business comes from referrals from friends whose employers require safety consulting. There are no backroom deals or preferential treatment. When we do business, it’s all business; when we’re off the clock, we’re friends. I’ve learned that enjoying the company, both on and off the clock, of people you work with makes things go smoothly even when times are rough.

Are you ready to go it alone?

What are your circumstances?

Most people don’t plan to become independent safety consultants; circumstances such as the loss of a full-time employment usually drive them this way. This became clear to me when I worked with a group of union safety committee members from a Detroit-based automotive corporation.

As I explained a few months ago in this magazine, these employees were given the opportunity to get OHST training to become better qualified in their jobs. What I didn’t mention in the article was that their initial motivation to pass the exam was low. When I posed the question, “What will you do if you lose your job with this company?” some heartfelt discussions ensued; the reality was that they had limited re-employment opportunities.

I opened up the possibility of becoming independent safety consultants. “It’s very important to have a safety credential if you want to market yourself as a consultant,” I explained. “And the OHST is a valuable credential.” Motivation shot up, and they all passed the exam.

I read recently that the corporation where they work may be reducing their North American workforce by about 50 percent in the next few years. At least some of these people now have more options if their positions are eliminated.

Can you make it?

No one is guaranteed success in life, but if you are motivated, chances are you will be successful. Many books have been published on how to succeed as an independent consultant. I found some good ideas in these books, but mostly I just stumbled along and have done OK. I do, however, have six crucial pieces of advice:
  • Maintain the cash reserves to carry you through unpredictable periods of “famine.”
  • Cover health insurance costs — having a working spouse with insurance is important.
  • Expand your network of friends and acquaintances who may refer work your way.
  • Keep a positive outlook.
  • Keep yourself safe and healthy. If you get laid up because of an injury or illness, the flow of income and future work can dry up quickly.
  • When in doubt ask for help. Call me if I can be of service.
I take that last piece of advice very seriously. We’re all in this business together for the goal of keeping the workforce safe.