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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

DIY vs consultant

Should generalist health and safety consultants even exist? This startling question has been raised by the departing head of the UK regulator. PETER BATEMAN summarises the debate and analyses responses to our survey on the issue, while consultants give their view on the next page.

Dame Judith Hackitt must have known her remarks would stir some controversy. The departing chair of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive gave an interview to IOSHMagazine earlier this year in which she suggested, to paraphrase rather a lot, that small businesses should not hire generalist H&S consultants at all.

Why? Because the law requires organisations to identify their risks and eliminate or manage them. This process is fundamental. They cannot contract it out to an external party. Small organisations, by definition, should be able to do this themselves.

The place for H&S generalists, she indicated, was as employees of medium to large businesses, given their more complex systems and procedures and their wider range of risks. They should call in H&S specialist consultants as required – hygienists, ergonomists, engineers, medical advisors and so on.

Taking her argument to its logical conclusion, therefore, leads to the notion that maybe there is no place for a generalist H&S consultant; that consultancy should be left to the specialists.

This seemed like a debate worth having, so we invited several H&S consultants – specialists and generalists – to have their say (see the following pages). Not surprisingly, most of them disagreed with Dame Judith, though some conceded her views were worth considering.

My interview with HASANZ chair Craig Smith (see page 18) was another opportunity to run these ideas up the flagpole, given that HASANZ is composed of professional bodies and aims to create a register of accredited people, most of whom are likely to be consultants.

“I agree absolutely,” he said of Hackitt’s view that no one can “do” health and safety for a business: it must do the hard yards itself of identifying the risks it creates and managing them. “Where she and I depart a little is that I don’t think we are anywhere near this utopia that people are able to do all this for themselves.”

Smith’s key point is that the role of a H&S professional – whether consultant or in-house – is to facilitate and enable people within a business to be competent in their own right at dealing with H&S issues: to build the capacity of their own H&S practice. Feedback from the Safety Star Rating pilot, he says, reinforces other research showing that even where senior executives are committed to good H&S practice, there is often a gap between what they think is going on and what is actually happening.

“That gap is where the H&S professional should responsibly be working.”

He is concerned that too many organisations are still overly focused on H&S compliance, and says the H&S professional can assist in moving organisational maturity along from transactional/compliance to proactive/integrated.

“Health and safety is still very much an external locus of control rather than an internalised belief. A good H&S professional helps an organisation move to where H&S is part of everyday life.”

We also ran an online survey on people’s use of consultants and put up Dame Judith’s thoughts within it. Each of the 45 respondents had used at least one external H&S-related consultant since January 2015. Not surprisingly, generalist consultants were used by most (30), with engineering specialists (8) and process safety experts (10) used least often. The vast majority found a consultant by asking someone they know for a recommendation, or used someone they were already familiar with. Only a few used an internet search.

Happily, 60% were very satisfied and 24% satisfied with the performance of their consultants.

When selecting a consultant, the most important factor was their technical expertise (cited by 53% of respondents), followed by their qualifications (29%) and being already familiar with their work (18%).

Some respondents were willing to go along with the first of Dame Judith Hackitt’s propositions, but almost all of them baulked at the second. The first – that SME’s shouldn’t hire generalist H&S consultants because they should do risk management themselves – attracted support from 28%, while 22% had no opinion and 49% disagreed.

Of the supporters, however, most still allowed that a generalist consultant could add value – provided they took a coaching role. “No one knows their business like the people working in it. While a generalist consultant can coach and provide review assistance, they should not be undertaking hazard ID etc,” said one. Another noted that in some instances an SME might need assistance in knowing what to do or what might be classified as a risk. “When people are doing something every day they may not see something as being a potential problem.” A third respondent took the Donald Rumsfeld position – that a company doesn’t necessarily know what it doesn’t know.

The second proposition – that there is no place for generalist H&S consultants – attracted only one supporter and one who sat on the fence. The other 94% disagreed, often vehemently. “Both of these suggestions are stupid,” said one. So there. Another unburdened with: “Why on earth should a business have to pay for so many different consultants? That is lunacy and will encourage non-compliance by being far too difficult and expensive.” Another agreed that scaremongering for business is wrong, and that “a good H&S generalist wouldn’t want that to be their legacy!” Another respondent, following the line of thinking that to be a generalist is, in a way, a specialist thing in itself, noted: “Generalist H&S consultants understand approaches to cultural improvement and risk management. These are specialist topics in themselves.”

However one respondent did foresee a time when there would be no need for generalist consultants: “When WorkSafe provides tools to all business along the lines of what’s been done for farmers.”

Consultants on consultants

Business empowerment

The interview with Dame Judith Hackitt made interesting reading. Her main issues seem to be that in the UK there are too many H&S consultants, that there is not good information for distinguishing the skills of these providers, that at worst some H&S providers sell through fear, and that business should deal with their own risks and not delegate the responsibility.

As an occupational hygienist working as a consultant, her comments forced me to reflect on the situation here. As in the UK, New Zealand has some fantastic, dedicated H&S providers who work tirelessly to protect workers’ health as well their safety.

However there have been media reports of H&S professionals accused of scaremongering, such as the RNZ report in January that consultants had been contacting schools to say that senior staff could be jailed under the HSW Act, and the September report from Stuff of small businesses being coerced into purchasing H&S systems in order to comply.

The development of the HASANZ Register will go some way towards helping business identify reputable providers. Many businesses do take responsibility for their risks, but in my experience many have not taken this seriously and may defer this responsibility to an external provider. Perhaps Dame Judith has a point here that is worth exploring in our own context.

In any working situation, large or small, the senior managers, owners, directors and workers must take responsibility for H&S but may use consultants to help facilitate this. The H&S consultant is not the key person in the relationship. A business should know its own risks and must take responsibility for them. In order to identify these risks, there will be effective worker participation and the key conversations will take place between workers and management.

The role of the H&S professional is to provide specialist information that may be missing (technical information or gaps that the professional may identify) and be a conduit for information sharing – but never to block the access of the workers to management or vice-versa. If the business is to be empowered by the H&S professional, there will be a circular relationship between the H&S professional and the business which includes workers and management. There is no place for a professional-centred approach which minimises the role of business and workers in risk assessment.

Let’s take these comments of Dame Judith seriously, learn some lessons from the UK experience and move forward to do the best we can here.

Carol McSweeney is a director of Air Matters Ltd.

Specialists scarce

Interesting question. In terms of numbers on the ground the generalist H&S consultants outweigh the specialists by quite a margin. When generalists require a hygienist or an occupational health physician, for example, they can be hard to find and in demand, particularly if you are based in the provinces (aka south of the Bombay Hills!)

My interpretation of the role of the health and safety consultant is that they advise and guide their client, small or large, on what to do. Good H&S generalists can be very effective in this advisory capacity without actually doing the work for the client.

It could be said that medium to large businesses, which have generalist H&S staff employed to assist them, could (and sometimes do) find themselves coated in a false sense of security, in that they have someone who is available to tick the boxes without actually taking the initiative to manage their own risks.

So I disagree. There is a place for a good generalist H&S professional. Perhaps the role could be described as a Specialist Generalist.

Allyson Harwood is managing director of Midway Occupational Health Services. This is her personal view.

No place to hide

A significant majority of businesses and their directors and managers either don’t know what they should be doing and how to do it, or know that they need help to implement what they are trying to achieve. So until we reach Nirvana there will be a role for well qualified, accredited generalist consultants, for the following reasons:

  • • 
    A one-stop shop where you can get advice across the full range of H&S issues you may face, who will help you prioritise your efforts where it matters most and guide you to more specialist resources only if and when you need them.
  • • 
    Access to advisors with a broad range of experience who can compare and contrast across different businesses and sectors (Employed staff may have limited breadth).
  • • 
    The ability to access that advice when you need it and for as long as you need it. There may be peaks in demand that internal resources cannot accommodate.
  • • 
    To support solo H&S practitioners within a business who may lack the ability to seek internal support or peer review.
  • • 
    Because sometimes it’s hard to be a prophet in your own land; messages may be listened to more from an authoritative third party.
  • • 
    Contestable advice to support or challenge what your managers or internal advisors are telling you. This is particularly important as part of due diligence; a fresh pair of eyes may enable you to see things that are right in front of your face.
  • • 
    Specialist advice from ergonomists, hygienists, etc may need to be interpreted and contextualised as part of a wider solution. The generalist consultant can help you become an intelligent consumer of that advice.
  • • 
    To provide independence and objectivity into investigations and reviews.
  • • 
    To be able to communicate more effectively to a different audience, such as the board or executive.

In a competitive market generalist consultants can only succeed if they meet customer expectations. In a country as small as New Zealand and in a market such as health and safety there is no place to hide if you are not adding value and providing the kinds of services your clients need. This acts as an effective incentive to only deliver high quality work or risk not getting the referrals and recommendations that are our lifeblood.

However, despite my comments, the market for practitioners, especially consultants, needs to be better regulated so that there is some external accreditation that prospective clients can seek when deciding to invest their scarce resources in someone to advise them on a topic as important as the lives and health of their workers.

Mike Cosman is a partner in CosmanParkes Ltd.

In the hands of business

So the world should be rid of H&S consultants! Do I agree? Of course not, but if we look at some of the key statements made by Dame Judith there is still a lot to agree with. Yes, there is an over-population of people purporting to be H&S experts who “over-interpret the law”, and yes there is evidence to show that the business community doesn’t necessarily know the difference between the various professions that operate in the wider H&S industry.

You don’t have to look hard to find that there are consultants out there making outlandish statements, not unlike those described by Dame Judith. We have heard them all: directors are going to go to jail if they don’t purchase this manual, or school principals will face the maximum fine if they don’t undertake that audit.

A key duty within H&S legislation is that those who create the risk own it and they can’t contract out of their wider responsibilities. The reputation of H&S generalist consultants has sometimes been tarnished by those described by WorkSafe’s Gordon MacDonald as charlatans. Similarly, Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Woodhouse, when talking to an Otago farmer who had been told he needed to spend thousands on an audit, suggested that if he wasn’t happy with that then “get another consultant or do it yourself”.

Dame Judith expressed concern that the UK’s OSHCR register hasn’t delivered on its purpose. Our work on the HASANZ register has been in-depth in terms of our due diligence with the business community to determine their needs, and to begin to educate the demand side – business – in the various professions that make up the H&S industry.

Ultimately it will be the business community which decides the future of the H&S generalist, whether they recruit an employee to do this work or choose to use a consultant. Health and safety is no different from any other business decision; if there isn’t in-house expertise or knowledge in this area then a health and safety coach might be the most suitable option.

Greg Dearsly is director of First 4 Safety Ltd.

GP comparison

I disagree that there is no place for a generalist health and safety consultant. Just as a GP oversees and communicates between specialists for excellent patient medical care, a skilled H&S generalist (in-house or consultant) has a sound understanding of how a safe and healthy organisation functions, and a robust understanding of the specialists that may be called upon to address specific issues.

However, I do believe we struggle with a lack of skill. Some H&S generalists have limited understanding of the relevant specialists and work areas, and are therefore unable to recognise the need for specialist engagement or to apply the specialist’s findings. This inability to recognise the limitations of their own knowledge needs to be addressed. H&S generalists should be viewed as skilled specialists in their own right, with skill areas including knowledge of other professionals, working with small businesses, management theory, law and legal precedent, international supply chain issues, conflict resolution, and multiculturalism/biculturalism.

Equally important is that the business audience is currently poorly educated regarding H&S, its skillsets and specialisms. As we upskill our H&S sector, we must also upskill the knowledge of our business sector to understand the critical need for H&S as a bottom line business function.

This lack of business knowledge was made clear during a HASANZ conference presentation when George Adams, chair of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, insisted that only one professional H&S organisation was required in New Zealand – ignoring the range of specialisms that exist for good reason across both the health and the safety fields. I doubt that such a reduction of H&S knowledge and personnel would do the New Zealand workforce any favours.

Marion Edwin is a director of human factors consultancy Optimise Ltd.


After chairing WorkSafe’s Occupational Health Advisory Group for nearly three years I’ve had the opportunity to understand the industry and its challenges rather well. My conference comment stands. It’s directed at the paucity of resources which many of the HASANZ member organisations are able to command. Strategic coordination through a peak body (HASANZ) with an independent viable commercial future would, in fact, strengthen constituent members and allow them to present a more professional face to their clients. They would retain their own identities as specialist groups within HASANZ but they would direct their funding collectively to HASANZ, which would enable them to drive back-office efficiencies, have a single point of contact, a uniform quality approach, a big voice in advocacy, better marketing, and a collective ability to attract and retain staff.


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