By Jeff Beeler, JB Safety & Rescue Services
We often hear the term “Competent Person” at work, but how many of us know what that really means and where we might need one at our job site? Do we know who can be our Competent Person, and how does that person get trained to be one? At times workers are deemed the title of Competent Person at a job site without even knowing how to properly fulfill that requirement. In order to understand these issues, we should first look at the OSHA definition.
Designating a Competent Person
In 1926.32 (Definitions) subpart (f) OSHA states: Competent Person means 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.
There are two main parts to this definition. The first part is the capability of the individual. How do you become “capable”? OSHA stated in a letter of interpretation that a Competent Person must have training or knowledge in a particular area in order to identify and correct hazards encountered. It’s a matter of taking classes, personal study and work experience to gain the appropriate capabilities. Excavation work is an example of an area where a Competent Person is required. An employee can’t be capable of recognizing hazards in an excavation or trench without training on soil typing, soil conditions and protective features such as shoring, sloping or trench boxes. Without personal work experience the employee may not recognize hazards caused by vibration, utilities, adjacent buildings and equipment operating in the vicinity.
The second part of the definition is the authority. An employee cannot be considered a Competent Person until designated as such by their employer. No other entity can do so, nor can the employee self-designate. The employer can only do so after recognizing the employee’s capabilities for that specific area (i.e. scaffolding, excavation, fall protection). For example, an employer may recognize that a particular employee has the knowledge and experience in fall protection exposures common to that company’s work. The employer may then designate that employee as their Competent Person for fall protection. That designated employee is not necessarily a Competent Person for any other area such as excavation or scaffolding.
An important requirement that is often left out is the written designation. Competent Person is not a designation that is handed out randomly at a job site, although it is often done that way. An employee(s) must be evaluated by the employer for their capabilities and given a designation formally.
Now that we know how to designate the Competent Person, what are their responsibilities? Let’s look at the three basic areas: recognizing the hazard, identifying appropriate hazard control/elimination, taking corrective action.
What are those duties?
Certainly the Competent Person must recognize the hazard. It’s listed in the definition, right? This means an initial inspection of the job or site before the work begins and as needed during the work. Using the Excavation regulations, 29 CFR 1926.651(k), as an example, “An inspection shall be conducted by the Competent Person prior to the start of work and as needed throughout the shift.” The Competent Person must check the excavation prior to employees entering to be sure that soil conditions are acceptable, protection features are safely in place, and that surrounding work does not affect the safety of the job. Further inspections must be performed as the Competent Person recognizes the need. If weather conditions are wet, the Competent Person must be aware of the impact of that on an open excavation/trench and inspect it more frequently during the shift.
The next responsibility of the Competent Person is to identify the appropriate means to control or eliminate the hazards found. Knowing the applicable regulations and standards, understanding technical information for equipment and awareness of common corrective means used in the industry would be just part of what is critical of the position. In scaffolding for example, when a Competent Person inspects a scaffold at the beginning of the shift and finds a loose base plate or a bent cross member, the Competent Person must know what to do to eliminate or control the hazard. Can the base plate simply be screwed down more so it’s firmly set on the ground, or is there a structural issue? Does the cross member need replacing, or is it within the manufacturer’s allowable tolerances for continued use?
The third area for the Competent Person is to use their authority to take action and make the corrections needed. The correction may be made by the Competent Person or assigned to a worker or trade. If the correction is more technical, the assistance of a “Qualified Person” or someone with a specific expertise may be necessary to assure worker’s safety. The key word used by OSHA is “promptly”. The hazards found must be corrected right away or at least before any workers may be exposed. In a high rise building under construction, a Competent Person may find there are no guardrails along the exposed edge of a working deck. The Competent Person may choose to not allow workers on that level until the guardrails are installed, thereby eliminating the exposure to the hazard. The designation of Competent Person includes the authorization by the employer to make decisions necessary for worker’s safety.
There are some common issues related to the Competent Person position that I see frequently. The biggest issue is when a contractor hires a scaffold company to erect a scaffold on their work site. The scaffold company will erect it, inspect it and give it their OK to use. Then they go away while the contractor uses the scaffold for days or weeks. Where is the Competent Person to inspect the scaffold daily before use as required by OSHA?
In addition, if you are a general contractor you are responsible for all of your subs. If they don’t have a competent person where required you may assume much of the liability if there is an incident. Make sure you specify that requirement of your subs.
Variations with the military.
Many of us are doing work with the military, that’s where much of the work is now. When working as a contractor for a military base we must be familiar with the safety and health manual, EM-385, developed by the Army Corps of Engineers. There the concept of Competent Person spreads to all areas of safety and not just certain ones. Much of the EM-385 refers to OSHA regulations and considers the most stringent reference as governing but has additional safety requirements. A case in point is having an overall Competent Person called the Site Safety & Health Officer. Section 01 35.26 (126.96.36.199) reads: “The contractor shall provide a Safety oversight team that includes a minimum of one (1) Competent Person at each project site to function as the Safety and Health Officer (SSHO). The SSHO shall be at the work site at all times, unless specified differently in the contract, to perform safety and occupational health management, surveillance, inspections, and safety enforcement for the Contractor, and their training, experience, and qualifications shall be as required by EM 385-1-1”.
Someone doesn’t become a competent person because they hold the position of supervisor or foreman, nor do they gain the designation simply by taking a class titled “Competent Person” training. They can’t get a field promotion to Competent Person with a wave of the hand of a superior or by having years of experience. A Competent Person can only be assigned by the employer and only after that employer is satisfied with the knowledge, training and experience of the individual in the specific area. Once the designation of Competent Person is made, and documented, the employer can be satisfied that the job site will be safer under the guidance of someone who can recognize hazards, know how to correct them, and will do so promptly.
The author, Jeff Beeler, is the owner and a trainer for JB Safety & Rescue Services (www.jbsafetyservices.com). He has authored articles for Occupational Health and Safety Magazine, International Window Cleaners Association magazine and others. He has been a speaker at a number of conferences and meetings.
Jeff also instructs for the Associated General Contractors in San Diego and the OSHA Training Institute through U.C. San Diego. He can be reached at 619-206-6414 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .