Bring up the topic of certification and competency to a group of safety professionals and you’re sure to get a firestorm of questions and comments. Does certification equal competence? What’s the difference? Which one matters more?

There’s no simple answer. But figuring things out starts with understanding what each one really means.

Understanding Certification and Competency

Though both are important in different ways, certification and competency mean very different things.

What Is Certification?

Certification is all about credentials. It’s what some people might consider “formal” education. Professionals who are certified in their area of specialty complete a course of study, pass a written examination, and must continue taking professional development courses throughout their careers.

There are thousands of credentialed safety professionals in Canada, and these credentials do matter. In essence, having a credential represents a commitment on the part of the professional. It shows that they have set a goal for themselves and followed through to achieve it. The third-party stamp of approval validates the knowledge and professionalism they gained in the process.

What Is Competency?

Competency, on the other hand, has nothing to do with professional or formal education. Instead, it refers to the skill and knowledge needed to successfully complete a task. Those who have competencies are qualified to perform their work safely and often with little or no supervision.

It takes time to develop competence, and it can be attained in a variety of ways:

  • Initial training
  • On-the-job learning
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Formal qualification

Competent individuals require little in the way of direct supervision and have the experience and ability to carry out their project duties, recognize their limitations, and take appropriate action to prevent harm to those carrying out the work and those affected by it.

Which Matters More?

While certification is an important method for gaining the key knowledge and skills necessary for a job, competency is required to complete the job properly and safely every time. We all know that practice makes perfect, and certification alone won't give you a whole lot of practice.

It’s not uncommon for workers to do training courses over the course of a few days and then write an exam to prove their knowledge. The certificate they receive deems them compliant in that area. But what happens when they don’t use this knowledge for an extended period of time? It’s almost certain that they won’t be able to gain competence – and that could lead to serious accidents (for more on the benefits of ongoing training, see 6 Ways a Permanent, In-House Trainer Can Benefit Your Organization).

In fact, researchers have studied how much we forget and come to some interesting conclusions. While it is influenced by factors including the type of material and your unique memory, the Curve of Forgetting suggests that we lose 50 to 80 percent of what we learned the day before if we don't do anything with the information. Forgetting that much is a pain in the neck when you're trying to remember where you put your cellphone the day before, but when it comes to safety information and safe work processes, it's downright dangerous. And that's why competence is so important.

Moving Towards Competence in the Workplace

In their report Beyond the Rules, the Canada West Foundation recommends that employers go above and beyond current safety regulations and adopt a competency approach.

Focusing on competency offers a number of benefits for employers and their workers. One Alberta steel fabrication company, in fact, has seen the benefits many times over. They decided to implement a competency program in 2013 after four serious safety incidents occurred between 2010 and 2012. Since introducing the program, the company's safety record has improved dramatically. The company has seen an impressive 800 percent reduction in lost time claims. Over the last few years, they also saved over $1.5 million thanks to the new program.

How did they do it?

  • Identifying competencies relevant for each task in a given job
  • Establishing standards and criteria to assess worker competency through evaluation
  • Training employees who exhibit competency gaps with on-the-job training
  • Focusing company progress on commitment, consistent leadership, co-ordination, champions, coaching, communication, and continuous learning (see Enhancing Safety Culture through Mentorship Programs to learn more)

And how can you do it, too?

Experts recommend that Canadian employers begin by building and implementing a system of competency frameworks for every job, including standards for competence and criteria to assess it in the key tasks and subtasks. Employers should assess worker competence by observing their work, and then act quickly to fill any training gaps. It’s also critical to nurture a work culture where individuals are confident requesting training when they feel it would improve their safety and performance (learn more in Implementing a Safety Culture).


Certification and competence complement each other. It’s important for employees to receive some in-depth training and certification, but putting the training into practice is what really makes that knowledge stick and improve workplace safety records.

Employers can begin by assigning work based on what employees can actually do, rather than what their certificates say they can do. In addition to creating a safer workplace, the competency approach can provide much-needed support to employees, boosting morale and the company’s bottom line.