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OSHA: Competent and Qualified Are Not the Same

It’s the employer’s responsibility to assign certain job roles to employees who fit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) definitions of “competent,” “qualified,” “authorized” or “certified.”

For example, various OSHA construction standards require someone at the worksite—whether it be a supervisor or an employee—to be designated as a “competent” person.

OSHA defines a competent person as “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.” Some standards outline additional specific requirements to be met by the competent person.

Basically, competency is demonstrated, not certified by successfully completing exams or training courses. But is the distinction clear when the work is being done in the trenches and on the scaffolds and roofs?

“Employers don’t get it,” said Peter Lasavage, president of safety consultancy Lighthouse Safety, based in Saint Augustine, Fla., and a former OSHA compliance officer. “Specifically in the lower-skilled trades, chances are there won’t be a competent person onsite.”

It’s the employer’s duty to designate the competent person. “When I conducted inspections and approached a jobsite, I absolutely would ask, ‘Who is the competent person here?’ ” Lasavage said. OSHA inspectors may question the person designated as competent on his or her knowledge to ensure the person meets the requirements for being competent.

This knowledge can come from a person’s skills, experience and training. “It’s usually a person with some tenure,” Lasavage said. “But then again, knowledge of the trade is not knowledge of the safety, and experience by itself will not qualify a person as being competent.”

Demonstration of competency includes not only the ability to identify hazards, but also to correct them. However, workers with the ability to identify and correct hazards but lacking the authority to take corrective action would not fit the definition.

In addition to a competent person, some OSHA standards require certain employees be “qualified.” A qualified person is defined by OSHA as one who, “by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training and experience, has successfully demonstrated his ability to solve or resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project.”

Qualified workers might have more technical expertise than those designated as competent, but they would not necessarily have expertise in hazard recognition or the authority to correct identified hazards.

For example, in a trenching operation, a competent person must be capable of identifying trenching hazards and have the authority to eliminate the hazards or stop the work until the issues are resolved. A qualified person would be required to design the protective supporting system to be used in the trench.

The competent person can be the same individual as the qualified person, but must meet the criteria in both definitions to perform as both. Large worksites with many different operations going on simultaneously or multiemployer worksites may require more than one competent person.

OSHA will also sometimes call for certain workers to be “authorized” or “certified.” An authorized person is simply someone approved or assigned by the employer to perform a specific duty or to be at a specific location at the jobsite. A certified person is someone who has passed exams from an accredited organization related to the work that he or she will perform.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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