Are You Competent When It Comes to Safety?

Competency – it's a word we hear bantered about when we discuss workers' knowledge, skills, and aptitude with regard to safety. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a fully competent workforce, where every person was fully capable of performing work safely? Some might say that's Utopia. (The word utopia means "no-place" or "non-existent place.") In other words, they might say there's no possibility of having a workplace where everyone is proficient in knowing and applying safety rules, practices, and procedures. It's a challenge worth taking up, wouldn't you agree?

Toward a More Competent Workforce
Competency is absolutely required as part of a sustainable safety culture. Developing a strong safety culture where competency is a foundation requires commitment – commitment to build understanding, promote application, and instill motivation. The commitment must come from leadership for focus and resources – both time and money. While many executives tend to be more comfortable with spreadsheets, balance sheets, and the like than they are with safety processes and procedures, they have a responsibility to oversee safety of the employees and contractors who work for the organization. Part of that responsibility is ensuring the organization as has safety competent personnel. Executive and leadership commitment is only half of the equation.

Building a competent safety workforce also requires employee commitment. Leaders can provide time and money for employee training and development to build knowledge and skills that will keep people safe, formal and on-the-job. However, learning and application can't be "forced." Employees must be engaged in learning and application.

Who is the Competent Safety Person?
Have you asked yourself, "Who are the competent safety persons at my work site?" If not, you should. Competency is based on knowledge and experience of the person assigned to do specific work, which gives them the ability to recognize hazards and the authority to mitigate the hazard. Consider OSHA's definition:

Under OSHA, General Safety and Health Provisions, Construction, Definitions (1926.32(f)): "One who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them."

If you are a supervisor, manager, or executive at your work site, you must know who the competent personnel are. First of all, it's essential to have identified safety competent personnel and ensure that they remain competent for the work for which they are responsible. Second, during the investigation of a serious injury or fatality, an OSHA inspector will likely ask organizational leaders the question, "Who is the safety competent person?" The company leaders have an obligation to know who the competent people are, not just the company safety manager or the person designated as "in charge of safety." No one person can know all there is to know about every aspect of safety in the organization; in other words, no one can be expected to be the overall safety competent person.

Hence, during an investigation, company leaders may find it difficult to make a case for the safety manager being safety competent.

OSHA compliance officers will be quick to tell you that not everyone meets the "competent person" designation. The fact is, nobody is competent in all areas of safety. Creating competency in safety is a journey that must begin with basic understanding, application, and motivation to know and do the work without injury to self and others. General safety courses such as the OSHA 10 and 20 hour courses are good for general education but do not deeply address areas where competency is required. Here are a few areas where safety competence must be specific:

  • Electrical work
  • Scaffolding
  • Excavation
  • Hazardous material
  • Machine guarding
  • Other as designated by your own work site hazard assessment and industry standards

A work site assessment will help you to identify the specific safety competencies that are required. This is a process that should be undertaken as part of your safety management process (SMP) and create an organizational standard to be developed and maintained.

When it comes to safety competency, organizations must be specific, however, all employees at every level (from the CEO through the college intern) need to be trained to recognize hazards of all types. According to OSHA's General Duty Clause (the most cited regulation) the employer must mitigate all recognized hazards. The first step to mitigation of hazards is recognition. Secondly, employees must be able to evaluate the risk level and then apply controls.

As a leader in your organization, do your part to:

  • ensure that everyone understands their role with regard to specific skills and general hazard recognition and control,
  • provide sufficient training so employees know how to apply the safe work procedures to their specific work, and
  • motivate employees to take responsibility and be accountable for safety throughout the organization.

Each of these actions can mean that your workplace, shop, or work site is one where it's difficult to get hurt. Which means more people will go home to their families every day without injury.

Carl Potter, CSP, CMC, is a certified safety professional and certified management consultant who writes, speaks, and consults with leaders who want to create a zero-injury workplace. Since 1992, he has worked across the United States and Canada with one purpose – to eliminate every workplace injury. Learn more about his Hazard Recognition and Control Workshop at or contact him at [email protected].

Posted on Jul 13, 2016

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