Choosing the best consultant for your lab
You might feel that finding and selecting a qualified and appropriate consultant for health and safety issues is like a trip to Las Vegas and a pull on the slots. Admittedly, there are many factors to consider when choosing a professional consultant. For example, you should consider appropriate professional certifications (especially if there is the potential for litigation, as one must have recognized credentials to be viewed as an expert), request demonstration of experience and knowledge through a project portfolio and references from past customers, evaluate past experience with your organization, and determine the cost for services.
Before choosing a consultant, you must first define the problem or project and its scope as thoroughly as possible. If you are vague about why you want the consultant and what you specifically need from him or her, the consultant will have difficulty addressing your concerns. A consultant can answer many questions and do it thoroughly for a reasonable cost. But without good project definition, he or she may never address the issue you are really interested in.
First consider the nature of your problem or project. Is it general in nature or related to a specific issue? Many safety professionals have expertise in several different industries. Some will have great depth and a very narrow focus; others will have a more comprehensive breadth of experience in a variety of settings. If general health and safety concerns exist, you are often best served by looking for a consultant with appropriate credentials and experience in your specific industry. You probably don’t want to instruct the consultant on industry basics and be charged for the time to come up to speed on fundamental aspects. In addition, issues may be overlooked because of the consultant’s lack of understanding of the industry. The person simply may not know what questions to ask. However, if there is a specific issue—say, a high frequency of back injuries—then the specific need for ergonomics expertise will often outweigh the need for general laboratory knowledge.
We have also seen various types of arrangements for the use of consultants. Everyone is familiar with using consultants for specific issues. For smaller companies or institutions where responsibility for health and safety is a collateral duty for an individual or committee—or even a full-time job for a single individual—it can be very helpful to have someone to consult on questions or proposed actions. We have seen successful arrangements with a professional consultant being kept on retainer for two or three hours a month. The company gets free access for inquiries and opinions, or that person acts as a sounding board for bouncing health and safety ideas and concerns off of. The consultant might even be included as a member of a safety committee. If a large special issue comes up that would require much more time, then hours would be billed on a project-specific basis. This often works well because the consultant almost becomes a part of the facility and quite familiar with all aspects of the operation. Further, the consultant can develop a sense of ownership in the company. One of the downfalls is occasionally an unethical consultant might “fish” for work and push projects or concerns that are minimally valid. You must have someone you can trust and work with openly.
We feel it is important to work with consultants who have recognized professional credentials. The major health and safety certification organizations establish minimum standards of expertise, require continuing education, and have codes of ethics under which certified individuals must practice. The most widely recognized health and safety certifications are Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH)1 and Certified Safety Professional (CSP).2 Many will accurately surmise what a CSP deals with, as the name makes it self-evident. The CSP is a well-respected certification with a proven record in the safety arena. However, we are often asked what an industrial hygienist does. The primary mission of the CIH is to protect the health and well-being of people in the workplace from chemical, microbiological, and physical health hazards. Since we think industrial hygienists certified in comprehensive practice are perhaps the best all-around health and safety practitioners for laboratory and research settings, we will focus our discussion there for our example of a certification program.
The CIH certification is granted by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH).1 It requires:
- A bachelor’s or advanced college degree in the sciences or engineering
- A minimum of five years of full-time professional, broad-based experience in health and safety
- Adherence to a strict code of ethics
- Continuing practice and ongoing professional education
- Successful completion of two full days of written examinations
The exams cover 16 different subject areas, including these topics of most interest in laboratory settings: biohazards; engineering and non-engineering controls (e.g., ventilation, personal protective equipment); ergonomics; ethics and management; sampling, monitoring, and instrumentation; noise; ionizing and nonionizing radiation; safety and health regulations, standards, and guidelines; thermal stressors; toxicology; and general topics, including hazardous waste, chemical safety, risk communication, and indoor environmental quality.
As you can see, the benefit of choosing a consultant with certification is that you will work with an individual who is screened and approved by examination, who has applied practical knowledge in the field, and who is on top of current issues and developments through continuing education.
As we mentioned above, if you have specific or complex issues such as licensing for radioisotope use, review of animal use protocols involving potentially infectious agents, or design of an air-handling system for containment of contaminants, specialty consultants in a field such as health physics, biosafety, or engineering should probably be used. The American Biological Safety Association (ABSA),3 the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP),4 and the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) all have credentialing similar to that of the ABIH. You should be assured of getting a generally qualified consultant if the person is certified by one of these organizations. A professional engineer (PE) is important for design work. Unlike for the national certifications above, individual state engineering licensure boards regulate the licensed practice of engineering within a state. In all cases, however, passing a written exam and having years of professional-level experience are required to obtain the PE designation. PEs take legal responsibility for their engineering designs and are also bound by a code of ethics to protect public health and safety.
It is a good idea to check references and contact colleagues who may have worked with someone you are considering. Also, try to get firsthand feedback from other customers who have used that consultant.
There are more health and safety consultants out there than you can shake a stick at. Many are very good; some are not. Accurately defining your issue initially and then pursuing a properly credentialed consultant can go a long way toward ensuring a successful outcome that meets your needs.
1. American Board of Industrial Hygiene. Lansing, MI. http://www.abih.org/
2. Board of Certified Safety Professionals. Champaign, IL. http://www.bcsp.org/
3. American Biological Safety Association. Mundelein, IL. http://www.absa.org/
4. American Board of Health Physics. McLean, VA. http://www.hps1.org/aahp/boardweb/abhphome.html
American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). Falls Church, VA. https://www.aiha.org/Pages/default.aspx
American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH®). Cincinnati, OH. http://www.acgih.org/