Are You a Competent Person in OSHA’s Eyes?

By Dave Schuster, CHST

Anyone who has some degree of responsibility for worker safety is probably familiar with OSHA’s requirement that safety oversight be handled by a “competent person.” But what exactly does that mean? What makes an individual “competent” in OSHA’s eyes?

From a regulatory standpoint, the law defines a competent person as someone “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.”

In essence, a competent person is someone who has the training and knowledge to identify workplace hazards and prevent accidents. That’s how many companies view the requirement. However, when you look back at the definition, there’s another element – and that’s the most important part. A competent person also has the authority to take actions on the jobsite.

Whether a situation involves refusing to let workers begin a task without the proper equipment or in unsafe conditions, or whether it involves walking up and telling a worker to stop because of some kind of danger, a competent person must have the ability to ensure that rules, standards and guidelines are properly applied in the workplace.
A common misconception is that it’s only necessary to have a competent person when working with specific issues such as excavations or scaffolding. The reality is that someone should be qualified to serve in that role for all of your company’s activities that require any kind of safety supervision. That’s something companies with strong safety cultures practice.

Does that mean that every supervisor on a worksite should have the training to qualify as a competent person? Not necessarily. You just need to ensure that a competent person is available to oversee those areas where hazards could be created, and to support the efforts of the site supervisors. Think of a competent person as the head linesman on an officiating crew. The referees watch different parts of the field and report infractions they see to the head linesman. It’s up to him to make the ultimate call.

The number of competent persons and the training they need depends upon the nature of the work your crews perform. For example, if your company has 300 employees and performs very little scaffolding work, you probably only need to have two people out of that total with the training to supervise and monitor scaffolding activities. But if many of your workers spend a considerable amount of time erecting and working from scaffolds, you’ll probably want to have more competent persons available. In many cases, subcontractor personnel may have the training needed to serve in the competent person role on your sites.

Having a competent person on a site is very much like having an additional supervisor whose responsibility is limited to overseeing a specific function. The site supervisor can delegate the responsibility for that function to that person with confidence, freeing up his time and energy for other responsibilities.

By ensuring that you have someone who meets OSHA’s rules for a competent person, you’re doing more than simply complying with regulations. You’re making your jobsite safer for your workers and reminding them that you take safety seriously. In my experience, that attitude becomes contagious, and everyone benefits.

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