Safety Moment #79: The Process Safety Consultant

Process safety management consultant

This Safety Moment is one in a series to do with the process safety profession. Other publications in the series are Safety Moment #54: The Process Safety Professional, Safety Moment #105: Process Safety Wisdom and Chapter 20 of the book Process Risk and Reliability Management. Further guidance is also provided in the ebook 52 Process Safety Moments which contains Safety Moment #22: Clear Your Mind of Cant and Safety Moment #38: Memories.

No organization, regardless of its size, can have expertise on all aspects of the industry in which it works. There will always be specialized areas in which they will need outside help. Which means that they will need to hire a consultant. This Safety Moment discusses some of the features that an effective consultant should possess. 

Consultants must never lose sight of the fact that they are not wanted. The only reason for hiring a consultant is to solve a problem — a problem that the client wishes would just go away. The presence of the consultant is a nagging reminder that time and money are being spent on solving the unwanted problem. Therefore, even if the client and consultant get on well personally, their relationship will always be somewhat tense; the best thing that the consultant can do is solve the problem and then go away.

Companies hire consultants to help them with their risk management programs for the following reasons.

  • Some of the elements of the program may be new to a company; in such cases a consultant can help them get started. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s Process Hazard Analyses (PHAs) were a new technique in most facilities. Hence a small consulting and software industry developed to conduct PHAs and to train clients in their use and application. Now that PHAs are part of the furniture for most companies the need for this particular consulting service is not so great (the many people who continue to assist with the implementation of the PHAs are serving as contract workers, not consultants).
  • A company may be struggling with the logistics of its risk management program. Costs may be out of hand and/or the program may be way behind schedule. A consultant can work with the management team to bring the project back on track.
  • Consultants often make good auditors. Their expert knowledge of the principles of risk management of process safety regulations provides a solid foundation for their findings. And consultants are particularly well qualified to conduct assessments of a facility's risk management program.
  • A consultant can provide fresh ideas as to how to perform well-understood tasks. For example, many types of process hazards analysis are available. If a company has become stuck with one method, say HAZOPs, a consultant can help them evaluate and use other methods, such as What-If or FMEA.
  • A company may require detailed help concerning the interpretation of a regulation or ruling.
  • A consultant can provide benchmarks from other companies. Indeed, one of the most common questions that consultants have to answer is, "How do other people do it?", where the word "it" refers to an activity that they themselves are having trouble addressing.

Given this background, what attributes does a good risk management consultant possess? Here are some suggestions.

True Expertise

Consultants must be true experts. Many people know "quite a lot" about a topic, but that does not make them true experts. In the example quoted above concerning PHAs, by the early 1990s many engineers and other technical specialists had become very familiar with the process of leading hazard analyses. This did not, however, qualify them to become PHA consultants. Their experience merely qualified them to lead hazards analyses, not to design, implement and run PHA systems.

The Consultant as Outsider

The consultant should be an outsider. This is important because he or she may be called upon to present unpalatable truths to management. In many situations the cause of a problem such as a deteriorating safety record is understood by the people at the working level. However, no one within the organization feels that they can present "the truth" to management for fear of retribution. (This is not always a management problem. The consultant may find that management is quite flexible, and willing to adopt new techniques. The resistance may come from supervisors and working-level people who have become entrenched in the current mode of operating.)

A consultant may be able to successfully present bad news more effectively than an employee for three reasons.

  1. The worst that the client company can do is to terminate the consultant's contract. Since the consultant usually has other assignments, this loss of work is not as critical as it would be to full-time employee.
  2. Outsiders are often perceived as being more credible than insiders, even though they present exactly the same facts. (This is why consulting companies themselves sometimes have to hire consultants themselves. It is also the rationale behind the quotation, "An expert is someone who is more than fifty miles away.") 
  3. The third advantage of using an outsider to present bad news is that management is not quite sure where to 'place' the consultant. Consultants are often perceived as being "above" line employees, particularly if it is suspected that they have the ear of senior management. Therefore, comments from consultants are often treated with respect and consideration.

The importance of being an outsider raises a concern about the use of "internal consultants" — a phrase which some might regard as being an oxymoron. If the consultant and the client work for the same organization, sooner or later their chains of command will meet. Hence, neither is truly independent from the other. Furthermore, as their respective careers progress, it is possible that they will find themselves working for or with one another. This knowledge is likely to cloud the objectivity of the client-consultant relationship.

The consultant should also be an outsider because it his knowledge of "how other people do it" that can be so valuable to an organization that has become trapped in its own systems and ways of thinking.

Ironically, one of the problems that consultants can run into is that they themselves can become stuck in their own rut; they may have trouble accepting that other people's ideas may be as good as or even better than theirs. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the consultant is truly up to date, and that he or she is constantly evaluating and testing their own ideas, and abandoning those that are out of date. This being the case, one question that the client company may want to ask a consultant before hiring him or her is, "Which of your opinions and ideas have you changed during the last few years?"

Consultants — Not Contractors

Consultants provide advice - they do not put that advice into practice. A consultant looks at organizational issues, and advises management on how to address them. This is why the end product of most consulting contracts is a report and a presentation to management. If he or she is asked to implement some of the recommendations contained in the report, then he or she has switched roles from being an adviser to a doer. (An analogy can be made here with respect to education and training. Someone who is educated in a topic understands its fundamental principles whereas someone who is merely trained in that topic knows "how to do it." So it is with consultants and practitioners. Consultants provide insights to do with fundamental principles; practitioners, on the other hand, simply know what to do.)

Good consultants work by generalizing from the specific and then drawing specific conclusions from their generalizations. They go into a situation and investigate the facts of the current situation. From these facts they come up with a general analysis from which they develop specific recommendations.

The distinction between doing and consulting can be frustrating for many consultants. Many of them have had a career in industry, often at quite senior levels. They are used to taking charge and having their ideas put into practice. Hence, the need to persuade rather than command can be a challenge for such consultants, particularly when the client chooses to ignore the consultant's recommendations.

Client Relations

Consultants must possess good client-relations skills. They have to be aware not only of technical issues, but also of the internal company dynamics and politics. Process safety and risk management consultants frequently have a technical background and so they tend to perceive the world as being rational and objective. They may fail to grasp that their clients, like all customers, base many of their decisions on a combination of both emotion and fact.

Cuts Gordian Knots

In the 4th century BCE King Midas in the city of Gordium in what is now the nation of Turkey tied his ox-cart/chariot to a post with an intricate knot. It was prophesied that whoever could undo the knot would become the next king of Persia. In 333 BCE Alexander the Great attempted to untie the knot. He could not find an end to the rope, so he simply cut through the knot with his sword. He went on to conquer most of the known world, including Persia.

The story symbolizes the resolution of an intractable problem with a swift, unconventional stroke. Good consultants have the ability to cut the Gordian knots that clients have tied around their own programs.

Quick Study

Although a consultant may be expert in many areas of business or technology he will never possess the detailed technical knowledge to do with every task he or she faces. For example, each new assignment will require him to work with a new type of process technology, new types of equipment and a different regulatory environment. This means that an effective consultant is a quick study, he or she must be able to enter a situation, learn it sufficiently well to understand the management issues involved and then make sensible recommendations. This is analogous to what a trial lawyer does. He will learn the details of a case very rapidly, organizes the case that is to be presented to the court, make the presentation, and then almost immediately forget the details as he moves on to the next case.

Role of the Client

The client must realize that the success of the consultant's work will depend largely on the attitude and degree of cooperation provided by the facility employees. In particular, client personnel must try to be open-minded and objective. The consultant has been hired because he or she represents an outside point of view. Hence the findings are likely to upset some people on the client side because old and comfortable ways of doing business will be challenged. The client should try to understand that there may be new and better ways of operating; in particular, everyone should try to avoid using the phrase, "We've always done it that way and it's never been a problem" (with the implication that it never will be a problem.)

Response to Criticism

Consultants must have thick skins. It is almost certain that their ideas and recommendations will be critiqued and criticized. Oftentimes, the people doing the criticizing will be considerably less qualified than the consultant. Also they will have spent less time studying the problem being analyzed, and will probably have motives and agendas of their own. In these situations, the consultant must work as hard as possible to communicate the findings of the analysis to all concerned, but he or she must also recognize that the client is paying the bills, and ultimately makes the final decisions. The consultant is an advisor, not a decision-maker.


Consultants must market their services. At the same time, they must maintain a professional profile. Keeping these two activities distinct can be a professional challenge.

For many consultants their marketing will be based on a web page that provides information on services offered. This will be supplemented by direct mails and carefully managed email campaigns (which are best done through a service that provides full opt-out capabilities). Social media also provide an opportunity for professional marketing. By writing articles and blogs for LinkedIn and other similar sites, the professional gains exposure (and also develops his or her own ideas).

Maintaining a professional and independent profile is particularly important for consultants who serve as expert witnesses. He or she has to avoid the perception that he is a "professional expert" — a hired gun.

You are welcome to use this Safety Moment in your workplace. But please read Use of Safety Moments.

Copyright © Ian Sutton. 2020. All Rights Reserved.