Various health and safety regulations, codes of practice, and guidance notes make reference to “competence” or a “competent person”, but what is this, and how do you know if a person is competent? Is it just a question of looking clever and having a particular certificate?
The obligation to have competent persons assisting employers in meeting their legal requirements has been in existence for almost 70 years. As far back as 1938 in the case of Wilson’s and Clyde Coal Co Ltd. v English, the judge summed up employer’s duties at common law to include provision of ‘competent and safety-conscious personnel’.
The HSE has stated “for a person to be competent, they need qualifications, experience, and qualities appropriate to their duties”. These include:
- such training as would ensure acquisition of necessary knowledge for the tasks they are required to perform
- adequate knowledge of the hazards and failures of the equipment for which they are responsible
- knowledge and understanding of the working practices used in the organisation for which they work
- the ability to communicate effectively with their peers, with any staff working under their supervision, and with their supervisors
- an appreciation of their own limitations and constraints, whether of knowledge experience, facilities, resources, etc., and a willingness to point these out.
This general interpretation of the meaning of competence is borne out in legislation, specifically the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, regulation 7(5), in which the statement is made ‘a person shall be regarded as competent [to render safety assistance] where he has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities …’. Although this definition is specific to the function of providing health and safety assistance, it is a reasonable indicator of the full meaning.
This is extended in L21 Management of Health and Safety at Work; Approved Code of Practice and Guidance, in the guidance at paragraph 51, in which it indicates that, at its very least, knowledge must be considered as an understanding of relevant best practice and the personal qualities must include an awareness of the limitations of one’s own experience and knowledge and a willingness and ability to improve that experience and knowledge by obtaining external help and advice.
To determine competence, employers should objectively assess the actual competency needs of the situation. This enables the development of agreed standards that permit both the person undertaking the work and the managers controlling it, to be sure that the needs are known and delivered. This step also indicates the training needs of all concerned, together with any possibility of unrealistic demands. It is then easier to determine the most suitable way of recruiting or developing the people concerned – for example the actual qualifications, skills, knowledge or experience a person will require.
The next step is to observe how people actually perform the particular function to verify the determined competencies against actual performance.
Where a competent person is required from outside the organisation it will be necessary to determine the best way to find one. In some cases, an insurance company will specify or provide the relevant competent person, however this is not always the case.
A common method for the selection of a competent person is to make use of a professional or trade organisation dealing with the work required to be undertaken. Advertisements and trade journals can be utilised, as can approved competent person lists and recommendations from other organisations.
Maintaining and improving competence may involve a comprehensive assessment of training, coaching or experience. Training provision must be suitable and delivered by competent trainers. A preliminary decision is also needed on a suitable period for refresher training. In some cases, such as first-aid at work, the period is prescribed by law (see yesterday’s blog); however in many cases there are usually recommendations from professional or other bodies – especially where professional qualifications are concerned. For example both IOSH and the CIEH have issued guidance on the attainment levels required to maintain professional competence.
So that’s an overview of what can seem a muddy subject, although specific methods of demonstrating competence are widely recognised in higher risk sectors such as construction or heavy industry.
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