Who counts as a competent person in my workplace?
Plenty of terms have an intuitive meaning but can be hard to pin down the closer we look at them. Think of words like “alive” or “intelligent” – we all have a pretty good sense of what they mean, but all our attempts at defining them end up being circular. I was surprised to learn, for example, that in some legal contexts "a reasonable action" is defined as an action a reasonable person would take. That… doesn’t clear things up much, does it?
We run into the same kinds of problems when we try to pin down exactly what we mean by a competent person.
The safety profession has increasingly focused on ensuring worker competence as a proactive way of improving safety performance. “Competent” is one of those words that gets thrown around without a very clear sense of what is really meant. Even across the official definitions used in different jurisdictions, there is disagreement.
Defining a "Competent Person"
OSHA defines a competent person as follows:
“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.”
This definition implies hazard identification is at the core of competence, but it doesn't really explain how one becomes competent or how competence can be assessed.
Other definitions I’ve seen specify that a competent person should have a mix of qualification, skills, and experience that allow them to safely perform a task with minimal supervision. However, there’s still a judgement call needed – who gets to say what "adequate" and "safely" mean in such a definition? The person making this call needs to be competent themselves, so now we’ve added a further question: at what point does a worker get to deem themselves competent?
What Is Competence?
Trying to grasp what all of this means can get confusing, so let’s start with the basics. Competence is a vague concept that, in most cases, can’t be specifically defined in a way that will satisfy all situations.
Even with a working definition, it becomes all the more complicated when we discuss how to confirm competency.
At least in theory, in something like a manufacturing setting, you could apply statistical analysis to performance metrics and probably come out with a competency score. Worker A can assemble widget B in median 15 seconds with a detected failure rate of n, and x number of reported safety incidents.
Most types of work, though, don't lend themselves to this type of quantification. And even in a perfect scenario, we need to have some means of establishing competence before a worker is allowed to perform a task. Non-routine work makes assessing this even more challenging. There is necessarily an estimation involved, which relies on the judgement of a competent supervisor.
A Rough and Ready (But Not Totally Satisfying) Answer
Ultimately, this is the best answer we’ve got to the question of how to establish competence: we need to have someone who is already deemed competent evaluate the worker’s performance on a task until such time as they can perform it safely themselves. Organizations need to take reasonable steps to ensure that all tasks (including assessing competence) are only performed by competent individuals.
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