One somewhat confusing term that frequently shows up in OSHA regulations is that of the “competent person.” Although competent person requirements show up in quite a few industry-sector specific OSHA standards, it tends to receive a lot of attention in the construction industry. This is likely due to the sheer size and prevalence of the construction industry in the United States and the attention the industry receives from OSHA. Also, much of the conversation regarding the term “competent person” is tied to its definition within the OSHA standards, and whether the individuals they have designated as competent persons would meet OSHA’s expectations.
THE MEANING OF COMPETENT
According to OSHA’s construction standard 29 CFR 1926.32(f), a “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.”
Based on this definition, it is not clear whether this person would require a great deal of specialized training or education for many construction scenarios. It would seem that having a supervisor who has years of experience working on a jobsite, for instance, might be sufficient to ensure this requirement was met. In many cases, this would be a reasonable assumption; however, even basic construction site operations can be complex when it comes to identifying hazards that could lead to a jobsite injury or illness. It is the employer’s responsibility to exercise a degree of reasonable diligence to ensure the competent person is up to the task.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE
Another aspect of OSHA’s competent person requirement is understanding the role of the individual who is given this designation. According to OSHA’s construction standard 29 CFR 1926.20, employers are required to “initiate and maintain” programs to prevent jobsite accidents, and to implement accident-prevention programs. These programs are required to “provide for frequent and regular inspections of the jobsites, materials, and equipment to be made by competent persons designated by the employers.” This basically means that a primary job of the individual at the worksite who is designated to be the competent person is to keep an eye on the worksite to ensure any hazards identified by this highly experienced and trained individual are promptly addressed. A key aspect of this function that is not explicitly stated is that this individual should be able to recognize those hazards that could be reasonably anticipated to exist through reasonable diligence. Another way of stating this is that the competent person needs to know what he or she is doing as it relates to identifying worksite hazards and they need to exercise diligence in inspecting the worksite at a frequency appropriate to address changing worksite conditions.
While working as an OSHA compliance officer, I came across a lot of unexpected contributing causes to serious accidents. In one case, an asphalt roller started to roll down a fairly steep hill and the breaking mechanism did not engage properly, causing it to roll at an uncontrolled speed into a culvert. Inspection of the braking mechanism indicated the brakes should have worked properly; however, there was a can of starter fluid in the cab of vehicle that was unrestrained, and it was suspected the can may have rolled behind the brake pedal.
In yet another example, pilings were being driven for a highway bridge construction project and the vibration from the pile driver shook loose a large clod of soil from between old pilings from the pre-existing bridge that were going to be reused for the new bridge. This large clod of soil struck one of the site employees causing serious injuries.
These scenarios demonstrate how difficult it can be to identify and predict potential contributing causes to serious accidents. One has to wonder if even the most highly trained and experienced individual would be able to spot less obvious hazards such as those described above in order to eliminate them. That is to say, how can an employer ensure their designated competent person has the background and education necessary to succeed at his or her function?
The answer to this question goes back to the concept of the exercise of reasonable diligence on the part of the employer. It is important that the employer is confident that the competent person is familiar with the hazards inherent in the jobs performed at the worksite. This familiarity might come from a combination of experience, training, and education. Individuals who hold the competent person designation frequently have a great deal of construction experience. There are also training opportunities for employers to pursue, such as continuing education provided by OSHA Training Institute (OTI) education centers which provide courses on construction-related OSHA standards in general, and also provide more specific courses that focus in on particular construction-related operations and hazards such as scaffold erection, trenching and excavation, and fall protection. Taking this a step further, employers could consider assisting their employees who have an interest in construction safety pursue formal educational goals.
In fact, there are affordable, online degree programs offered by universities such as Columbia Southern University in the field of occupational safety and health. CSU’s Bachelor of Science in occupational safety and health even has a construction safety concentration.
The experience and educational background of those designated to be competent persons at construction sites may vary greatly from site to site. There is no set formula for any given employer to follow to ensure their designated person is worthy of the designation. All an employer can really do is select someone who is capable and experienced in the work being performed and to provide that individual with the training and know-how to fulfill that role.
About the Author:
Dan Corcoran, Ph.D., CIH, CSPˇ, is the academic program director for Columbia Southern University’s occupational safety and health and environmental management programs. Prior to working at CSU, Corcoran worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for approximately 15 years.
Modern Contractor Solutions, April 2022
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