Safety professionals are consultants of- a-sort already. The effective safety pro is an internal consultant — an internal business partner positioned to bring unique business expertise, specifically in the area of safety, health, and environmental issues, to the organization.

Like many internal consultants, though, they may be underutilized and undervalued. They typically have less resident credibility than the external consultant, who may be brought in to do what they already are capable of doing.

Are you ready to take the road less traveled — the independent consulting route?

Pros and cons

To work as an external safety and health consultant who sells services to client organizations, your main options are to work for one of many safety-consulting firms or to go out on your own as a sole practitioner. There is an upside and downside to either of these two major external consulting roles.

For both types of external consultant, whether working as an employee of a consulting firm or sole practitioner:
  • Travel is the number one complaint
  • Client relationship management skills are essential
  • Excellent communication skills are essential
  • High energy is essential
  • Resilience/ability to handle stress is essential
  • You just have to be pretty smart and quick on your feet
The consulting firm-employee consultant:
  • Is likely to have a steadier flow of work — more security
  • May not have to personally market his/ her services
  • Is still in a hierarchy, working for a boss who has a boss, etc.
  • Makes a salary — some fraction of what is billed to the client
  • May have little influence over the projects he/she accepts
  • May be narrow — niched into doing just one or a few kinds of projects
The independent consultant:
  • Is likely to have more of an unpredictable, erratic flow of work — less security, more “feast or famine”
  • Has to personally market his/her services
  • Has high autonomy and self-determination
  • Makes in fees what is billed to the client
  • Has a great deal of say over what projects he/she does

Launching your business

I think there is plenty of opportunity out there for external, independent consultants in the safety arena. That said, crafting a career as a successful safety consultant takes a lot of focused effort.

So, if the prospect of a 60-70 hour work week, high-intensity/high-stakes jobs that involve staying in Holiday Inns in small towns across this great land, with the prospect of doing it your way, and truly making a positive difference in safety (and a good living in the process) still sounds appealing, here are some “quick start” tips:
  1. — Network like crazy. Talk to anyone and everyone who could be in a position to be helpful to you, with advice, tools and techniques, and work opportunities. If you identify a successful consultant who might be willing to “apprentice” you, so much the better. There’s no substitute for observing and learning from a “master.” Many successful consultants are generous in this regard.
  2. — Have clients in your pocket. If you do plan to “go out,” do it with at least one or hopefully two good clients in the breech, ready to hire you. Without some work in the pipeline you’re risking three to six months or more with lots of prospecting and the real likelihood of little or no income during that time.
  3. — Look for “sustainable” clients. You want long-term, continuing relationships with your clients. Prospecting is not much fun for most of us. It’s very time-consuming, and the yield can be very low. Repeat clients know what you cost, they have seen the value that you bring, and any new project is just “doing more of what you do”. The entry and contracting process around new work is simpler and more comfortable with existing clients
  4. — Refine and practice your “entry and contracting” process. The initial proposal and negotiation process can be nerve-wracking. Especially with clients who are not experienced and savvy consumers of consulting services, they can expect you to do a lot more work for a lot less compensation than you want. Negotiate in a manner that is persuasive and tight (without being robotic). Anticipate the questions and “objections” that new clients are likely to have, and be prepared to address them accurately, fairly, and convincingly.
  5. — Diversify your client portfolio. There is, of course, risk in over-investing in one client. A merger/acquisition, a new CEO, a major downturn in business, the hiring and staffing of an internal department to do what you had been doing. There are no guarantees.
  6. — Keep learning. Read voraciously about safety. You need to know current best practices and new research, regulations and guidelines. Not just in the U.S. but globally. (See Dan Markiewicz’s column this month on EMF exposures.) All this shapes the core content — the knowledge, tools and techniques — that you will be bringing to your clients. I shamelessly recommend ISHN as your primary source.
  7. — Read about business. Safety consultants can and should frame their role as a business partner, not as “an outside safety engineer.” Position yourself to add value to the business. You want to avoid doing a “silo” safety project.