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OSHA standards and the ‘competent person’

Who qualifies?

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We all want our boss and employer to think we’re competent at our jobs, but when OSHA standards refer to a “competent person,” the term comes with certain requirements.

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.”

A competent person also must have knowledge of applicable OSHA standards and the ability to identify hazards related to a specific operation. A competent person is required under many of the standards for the construction and maritime industries, certain gear certifications, and four subparts within the general industry standards. Some standards also have other specific requirements for a competent person.

“My impression is that there’s confusion out there on exactly what the term ‘competent’ means and who qualifies as a competent person,” said Richard Fairfax, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA and principal consultant for NSC-ORC HSE – part of the Workplace Practice Area at the National Safety Council.

In a hurry? Here is OSHA's short definition

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.”

Authority and knowledge

One issue is that some employers might think a competent person is simply the most senior person on a jobsite, but it’s more nuanced than that, Fairfax says.

Perhaps the most significant nuance in this example has to do with authority. Does the senior-most person have the authority to correct hazards or stop work if needed? 

“They have to have the authority to make the necessary corrections,” said Kevin Cannon, director of safety and health services for the Associated General Contractors of America and chair of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health. “If a person lacks that authority, they truly can’t be considered a competent person.” 

Another requirement is demonstrating knowledge – being able to identify hazards, for example. That’s why OSHA doesn’t limit the qualifications of a competent person to education or training.  

“As long as the individual knows and understands the hazards, and knows and understands what to do about them,” Fairfax said. 

Associate Editor Alan Ferguson discusses this article in the May 2021 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

Jobsite conditions are one clear indication of this knowledge, said Peter Lasavage, a former OSHA compliance officer and founder/president of the consulting firm Lighthouse Safety LLC.

During his time at the agency, Lasavage on occasion would conduct pre-inspection surveillance of jobsites. If he saw workers climbing ladders while not maintaining three points of contact or “employees working from scaffolds that are improperly erected,” those are significant signs that an employer may not have a competent person – or, at least, not an effective one.

“If hazards are present – for example, people are working without fall protection or there is an abundance of damaged electrical cords and PPE is not being used and so forth – then OSHA would assume the competent person is not competent and pursue documentation to support that conclusion, and then issue a citation,” Fairfax said.

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