What Is a “Competent Person?”

March 1, 2014

When a boss calls an employee a “competent person,”
it is not necessarily a compliment—it is a legal obligation.

A competent person is an employee who is able to recognize hazards
associated with a particular task, and has the ability to mitigate those
hazards. Many Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) construction
standards require someone on site—such as a Foreman, Supervisor, or other
employee—to be designated as a competent person.

However, OSHA does not have a
specific standard regarding a competent person, which has led to some

“It’s a fairly misunderstood
term,” said Phil Colleran, a Riverside, Illinois-based Safety Consultant
specializing in construction and a former OSHA Compliance Officer. Some people
may believe they can be considered a competent person because they attended a
class, or a boss arbitrarily assigned the title to them—although neither is
necessarily the case, Colleran stated.

Knowledge and Action

A competent person should not be chosen lightly,
experts say, because he or she needs to be qualified to identify the hazards
associated with a particular operation. For instance, if work is being
performed on scaffolding, the competent person must be knowledgeable about
scaffolding hazards.

This knowledge can come from a
person’s skills, experience, and training, according to Kevin Cannon, Director
of Safety and Health Services with the Associated General Contractors of
America in Arlington, Virginia. Training, which Cannon called key, can provide
the individual with information from particular manufacturers or on various
OSHA standards that will help him or her identify hazards.

Colleran warned against general
“competent person training,” and stressed that fitting the description goes
beyond what is learned in a classroom. “Just because you sat through a 10-hour
course, [that] alone [cannot] determin[e] your competency,” he said.
“Competence is demonstrated, not certified.”

Part of that demonstration
entails the competent person being able to immediately correct any hazards that
may appear. If that person is unable to do so, he or she would not fit the
definition of a competent person, Colleran said.

This is where part of the confusion with the term resides, according to
Cannon. “You can have an employee who’s competent but may lack the authority to
take any corrective action,” he said. “Employers need to make sure the employee
identified as a competent person has such authority granted to them.”

Proper Person

Because many
different types of activities can take place on a worksite, a competent person
must either have the authority to make safety-related changes to those
different operations, or know who can enforce those changes.

For instance, imagine a site where some workers are on a scaffold several
yards downwind from a mason subcontractor performing cutting work. Because the
scaffold workers are being exposed to dust and other potentially hazardous
debris from the masonry work, and the masons are not under direct control of
the competent person for the scaffolding work, the competent person must
mitigate the situation by going to the General Contractor.

A large worksite with different operations going on at the same time also
may require more than 1 competent person, Colleran suggested.

“There is nobody who is all-competent,” he said. “There are many types of
many competent persons based on the fact [that] there are many specialized
activities out there, and you can’t be competent in all fields.”

This does not have to be the case in every situation, however. If an
individual has experience in 2 different types of work being done on
site—trenching and use of ladders, for example—that person could serve as the
competent person for both tasks, Cannon said.

Additionally, a competent person could be somewhat of a generalist,
according to Colleran. This person does not need to know all the ins and outs
of every OSHA standard on the jobsite, but could be considered a competent
person if he or she is able to recognize when something may present a risk to
workers—such as an unguarded platform—and can act when such a risk is

In some respects, designating a
competent person is similar to instituting a workplace safety and health
program. Both have goals of identifying and mitigating hazards. Cannon believes
that employers who have a competent person working likely have already
implemented some type of injury and illness program.

“If you’re aware of the need
[for] a competent person, it’s not by chance. You understand what your
responsibilities are,” Cannon said.

OSHA Inspection

When OSHA visits
a site, one of the first questions an inspector may ask is who the competent
person is. (If not with those exact words, then by asking who may be in
charge.) The agency inspector may then question that individual about his or
her knowledge to ensure the work being performed is done under the oversight of
a truly “competent” competent person, according to Colleran. The requirement
for being a competent person goes beyond simply designating an individual with
that title, he said.

Colleran suggested employers
ensure all employees have the ability to recognize hazards and the knowledge to
mitigate them. That way, when OSHA comes knocking and asks who the competent
person is, the employer can respond a little differently.

“The logical answer—if the
company was really operating consistently with best practices—would be,
hopefully, ?everyone,'” Colleran said.


Key Points

  • A competent person needs to not
    only recognize hazards but be in a position to mitigate them.

  • It is possible to have an
    individual who is competent in many tasks, or to have multiple competent people
    for several different tasks.

  • While some experts believe hazard
    training is important, others assert that general “competent person training”
    does not exist.


Competent Person Versus Qualified

In addition to a competent person, some
OSHA standards mandate the designation of a “qualified person.” Experts are
quick to point out that although the 2 have some similarities, notable
differences exist.

A competent person can identify hazards and has the authority to
mitigate them. According to OSHA, a qualified person must have a “recognized
degree, certificate, etc., or extensive experience and ability to solve the
subject problems”—including possibly technical or engineering knowledge—for a
specific worksite issue.

For example, take a
trenching operation. A competent person must be able to identify hazards within
the operation and solve those issues; a qualified person has the knowledge to
design the protective system in the trench.

According to Mr. Cannon,
it is possible for a single individual to be both a qualified person and a
competent person, but it may not be possible for every situation.

can be both, but you must meet the criteria in the definitions to be both,”
Cannon said. “A competent person may not be a qualified person just because of
the different degree of knowledge and training that’s required” for the latter.