A little help...? Hiring an OHS Consultant

Posted On   by AHSA

Anyone who has been paying attention already knows that an effective occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS) offers a number of advantages to Alberta business owners.  Effective implementation of an OHS program can lead to:

  • reduced operating costs and downtime,
  • less staff turnover,
  • lower insurance rates, and
  • happier and more productive staff. 

What many employers still don’t understand, however, is that many of the systems that make up an OHSMS are required by law.  Unfortunately, even once employers are aware of this fact, the task of creating and implementing an OHS system can appear so daunting that they decide the risk is worth taking and do nothing.  As your industry safety association, the AHSA will be the first to tell you that the risk to your workers’ health and wellbeing is not worth taking!  Neither is the risk to the bottom-line and the reputation of your business.  And why chance it when there is help out there?  A wealth of resources and training are available, and much of it is very cost-effective.  What are always at a premium are hours in the day to get the job done!  But even that can be managed through a simple solution: hire a consultant.  A consultant can be very useful in getting a program started, or even helping to maintain it over the longer term.  But before you rush out to hire a health and safety consultant to help build your OHSMS, here are a few things to keep in mind.

An OHS Manual is not a Health & Safety Management System

It’s easy to find any number of consultants out there willing to sell you an OHS Manual…for several thousand dollars.  While this may seem like money well spent, the fact is that an OHS manual is just a binder full of policies, procedures and forms.  In most cases, all these consultants know how to do is copy and paste your company name and logo onto their ready-made templates.  This is not something you should be paying for.  To be effective, an OHS system must be specifically designed for your property.  The documentation must reflect your org. chart, the hazards of your site, the possible emergencies in your workplace, and the specific needs of your employees.  Generic documentation will almost certainly contain policies you don’t need, and reference staff positions you don’t have.  Templates will not quite fit your needs, and hazards specific to your worksite will be missed.  Good luck getting staff buy-in for your off-the-shelf program, and don’t think OHS Officers will be fooled if they drop in for a visit and ask to see your manual. What seemed like a good deal at the time will most certainly turn into an expensive, dust-covered paperweight taking up room on someone’s desk.

Consultants should work with you, not just for you

For a health and safety management system to be customized to your operation, both you and your key staff must be involved in its development.  While the consultant is being paid to do all the heavy lifting, only you and your staff understand your business, the work you do, and the hazards of your workplace.  Only you and your staff know what controls will work best for you, and what you can afford to implement.  The consultant’s job is to ask the right questions, ensure legislation will be met, use their expertise to make recommendations, and write up the documents and templates needed based on your input.  A good consultant will ensure the specific needs of your employees are heard, and that the system under construction will work effectively for you.

Designations don’t equal competency

Until the last 20 years or so, health and safety professionals were very hard to find.  Only a small number of educational institutions were offering certificates or diplomas in health and safety, and most people working in the field learned about OHSMS through actively participating in program building on the job.  Now that more safety associations, colleges and universities are offering health and safety training, a plethora of certifications and designations are available, but designations alone do not make for a good consultant.

While training and certifications can be valuable, when hiring a safety consultant consider their experience along with the list of courses they have taken and the letters they attach to their business card signatures.  Call previous employers to check references. Conduct checks to determine if they even have the training and certifications they claim to have completed.  The health and safety professional you choose should also have some experience in your industry, and understand the hazards and other challenges you face from day to day.  And don’t overlook a face-to-face interview to verify that they have the people skills needed to work with your staff and promote buy-in to the new program.

Avoid Consultants with a Certificate of Recognition (COR) Focus

This may sound like strange advice coming from your safety association, but the focus of a good health and safety consultant will not be on COR.  Building a system that ensures you get points for COR audit questions is not the point.  The audit itself is just one small piece of a health and safety management system: the annual check for gaps and opportunities for improvement.  While the ambition for COR certification is admirable, employers must have a bigger goal in mind: keeping their workers healthy and safe!  Any consultant worth your hard-earned money should be of the same mind.  While the perks of COR are attractive (WCB refunds, employer of choice status, bragging rights, etc.), a good consultant understands and will focus on what really matters, and will allow you to take the time to do it right.  Rushing through the process of building a safety manual that will pass a COR audit does not necessarily help you, and may actually distract from the bigger picture.  The end goal should be to implement an effective, practical system that will work for you and your staff long after the consultant has cashed their last paycheck.  

In Summary

Safety consultants can be extremely helpful in getting an OHSMS off the ground without adding duties to your busy staff’s current workload.  But much like any other service you purchase, the buyer must beware.  The increased focus on health and safety introduced by the Partnerships in Injury Reduction program almost 30 years ago has increased the demand for safety professionals in Alberta, and there are few systems in place to govern the safety industry.  Do your homework, however, and you may find that using a safety consultant to get things started may be one of the best business decisions you ever made.  

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