Get Competent to Work Safe: A Tale of Two Sites

In the business of safety, we talk about competency and use the term "competent person."

by Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, PhD, CMC

In the business of safety, we talk about competency and use the term "competent person." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refers to and requires competent persons in several of its standards and defines the term 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." Yet many managers, supervisors and leaders find it difficult to know how to apply this definition. Looking at the two primary components, capability to identify hazards and authority to correct them, helps clarify the definition.

We typically train employees to do the tasks required for their work and test to make sure they have the required knowledge and demonstrated ability. This is how most companies determine technical competency. Hazard recognition and control is sometimes part of the training. We then assume employees know they have the authority to control the hazard or stop the work if conditions are unsafe. One variable, however, is missing: the willingness to take responsibility.

Two Sites, One Missing Factor

The willingness to take personal responsibility is strongly linked to a person's values and their acceptance of accountability. This becomes clear when considering the comments recently made by workers at two work sites. At the first site, employees said:

"I got bit by a spider and they asked me if I could have prevented the bite! How am I supposed to know when a spider is going to bite my leg?"

"My boss asked me the other day how I got poison ivy. How can I stay out of poison ivy when I'm tromping through tall grass to get to my work?"

"We're in such a hurry to get the work done around here that I don't have time to pull all that stuff off my truck. It won't hurt anyone here on the dock."

At a second site, we heard employees say:

"It doesn't take long to put everything back where it goes around here-maybe an extra five or 10 minutes at the end of the day. I don't want to have to worry about tripping over tools and materials the next day, and I sure don't want my buddies to get hurt."

"I had to work in an area today that is usually infested with spiders and insects. I heard them talk about the new repellant at the safety meeting last week, so I went by the storeroom and got some. It worked well. I didn't get any bites, and I'm glad I listened to the guy at the meeting."

"We were getting ready to do a new job, and I asked my supervisor if he thought there was poison ivy in the tall grass. We weren't sure. He had us spray the area, and we went back the next day and did the work. Some of the guys on my crew easily get poison ivy, and we didn't have any problems this time. It helps to take a little extra time to spray."

It's not hard to recognize the difference in the mindsets at these two work sites. Did the hazards-spiders, poison ivy and poor housekeeping-require highly technical skills? Probably not. Were the employees authorized to deal with these types of hazards that can cause injury or illness? Without a doubt. What was the difference? Leadership and company culture are certainly factors; the primary variation here, however, is the degree to which workers are willing to take personal responsibility for making the workplace safe for themselves and others. It's not hard to figure out which site most people would choose as their workplace.

Creating the Competent Mindset

Making a jobsite safe requires a specific goal: nobody gets hurt. The strategy to reaching that goal is to recognize and control hazards. It's like planning a trip across country in a car or plane. You first choose a destination-goal-and then map the best way to get there-strategy.

Zig Ziglar, a great motivator and thinker, said "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Can you be a competent person? Certainly. Use the following questions to help self-assess where you are in being a competent person:

  • What have I done to make sure I understand the technical knowledge and skills required for my work?
  • What do I know about the hazards associated with my work, and what else do I need to know more about?
  • What assumptions do I make about the safety of my work? Am I using my opinion or facts?
  • How am I using my authority and responsibility to safely perform my work?
  • What questions should I be asking my manager, supervisor or leader so I can be recognized as a competent person?
These are only a few of the questions to help determine the strengths you have as a competent person. By starting with yourself, you can determine how competent your work site is.

At Potter and Associates International, we have a number of different tools that can help develop your competency. One is the 52 Weeks of Safety workbook, a tool to raise your workgroup's level of understanding of how to apply OSHA Regulations to their work. Another tool is Carl Potter's Hazard Recognition and Control workshop. For more information about both of these tools, visit

About the authors: Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, PhD, CMC work with organizations that want to create an environment where nobody gets hurt. As advocates of a zero-injury workplace, they are speakers, authors and consultants to industry.

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