Competent People

September 13, 2021 Industrial Safety TrainersIndustry News and Events 57 Views

Who is a competent person in your workplace?

As a trainer, there seems to be a lot of reoccurring discussions in the courses we teach. It could be about lack of adequate anchorage, understanding load center calculations for forklifts, or derating a slings’ working load limits for rigging, but those are course-specific. What I personally find, and I’m sure my colleagues would attest to this, is that all courses we teach inevitably end up with a discussion regarding competence. It doesn’t matter if the subject being taught is equipment-based, JHSC focused, or practical applications such as mock rescues or investigations - the importance of knowing who in your workplace has to be competent people and why this is significant always come up.

To start off, we have to look at what the legal definition of a competent person. The reason I say this is that our personal characterizations of this trait vary from person to person. Some workers say it’s someone who doesn’t ask them to do silly things, others say that it’s someone who doesn’t require assistance tying their shoes in the morning (yes, they are being sarcastic at this point), but then others say it has to be someone who knows how to do the job right. Even pulling up the definition of “competent” on the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives me options! There it can mean either “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities” or “legally qualified or adequate” – which one is it?

When you pull out the good ol’ green book, open it to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and go to Section 1 - sing the alphabet song down to “C,” we find it. It reads, a “competent person means a person who, (a) is qualified because of knowledge, training and experience to organize the work and its performance, (b) is familiar with this Act and the regulations that apply to the work, and (c) has knowledge of any potential or actual danger to health or safety in the workplace.” Although it seems pretty straightforward, let’s take a moment to walk through it.

Clause (a) tells us they need knowledge – so the individual has to be a repository of information. They need training – so they need to have undergone some sort of knowledge acquisition exercise. They need experience – they need a past history of the practical application of said previously gained theoretical knowledge. Finally, it gives us a condition for those three elements – to organize the work and how it is performed.

Clause (b) tells us that they need to be acquainted with, or at least roughly know what the Occupational Health and Safety Act and any applicable Regulation under that Act says about the work they are doing. This is generally where I find a shortfall at most facilities, to be honest. But, we are here to make your life easier. To throw you a proverbial life raft, if you take the law/regulations and your company’s health and safety program, they will in the very least lineup, if not exceed the statutory obligations. 

Clause (c) tells us that they need to be aware of the actual and apparent hazards associated with the work being done and any potential surprise elements to may arise. The individual must be able to see what is in front of them and predict the possible outcomes of their ever-changing situation!

Pretty simple, eh? I told you it was straightforward. But now that we have cleared up WHAT a competent person is, the next question is WHO now needs to meet that definition. Again this is a discussion I have had many times. So time to go back into OHSA and do some research!

Most participants always assert that the Employer must be a competent person, but let’s think that a lot of the time, our Employer is a corporation, not necessarily an individual. The OHSA S.25 (3) states, “an employer may appoint himself or herself as a supervisor where an employer is a competent person.” So when I am given the answer that it’s obvious the Employer should meet this definition, and I provide clarity - that’s it’s a big fat maybe. It depends! Some organizations will have Employers who are very involved and have appointed themselves accordingly, other just the opposite.

Now, if there is a chance that you still haven’t found the competent person you are looking for, read on – time to continue working through the parties of the Internal Responsibility System. Next on that list is the supervisor. The OHSA S.25 (2)(c) does require that “an employer shall, when appointing a supervisor, appoint a competent person.” Boom, there we have, the first manifestation of required competence!

When you think about it, a supervisor is the Employer’s representative at the worker level. They have been put in place to ensure productivity and quality levels are maintained and, most importantly, the worker’s safety. I had a participant once complain to me during a course that they felt underemployed. They had a degree in Occupational Health and Safety. They felt they were more than qualified to be a Health and Safety manager. What they lacked was any real-world experience in the construction sector they had been applying to. I sympathize with a new grad; trust me, I have been there as well – but a manager is a supervisor, a supervisor must be a competent person, and that requires experience to organize the work and its performance.

So is that it? Is the hunt for the required competent person over? Well, not quite yet. A quick glance over Section 28 of the OHSA shows us there is no prerequisite for the worker, but that isn’t a stern “No.” A worker can be assigned a variety of tasks. Some do require competence, while others do not. We now have to look at the regulations, which change depending on where you work.

Ontario Regulation 851 for Industrial Establishments lists “competent person” 11 times (yes, “ctrl + f” is your friend here). A worker who operates a nail gun, performs a rescue for electrical contact, operates a lifting device and inspects the same, to name a few.

Ontario Regulation 213 for Construction Projects lists “competent person” 14 times. Examples include workers who assist supervisors, give instruction on working at heights, or supervise the removal of a support system for the walls of an excavation.

Those are just two of the 25 current regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. But, remember, part of being competent is knowing what applies to you! So only check the regulations that apply to your work. Work smart, not hard, right?

So now that you have all of this information in your head, what to do with it? Do you know who in your workplace has to be a competent person? If so, how did you verify it? The reason that we have to ask ourselves this question is twofold.

Firstly, it’s all about compliance. We want to ensure that our organization is following the requirements of the Act. I don’t know about you, but I personally do not like being surprised – especially when that surprise was a legal obligation that can now affect my financial situation. Not cool.

Secondly, it’s about safety. While there is a direct correlation between safety and compliance, it just isn’t always; how do I put this nicely… internalized by workers. People occasionally fail to make the connection between amendments to the OHSA and real-world injuries. Remember, if they put it in there, it happened, probably more than once. 

While we may have found not everyone in the workplace to legally be a “competent person,” some clarification ideally has been made. With that knowledge, training, and experience, you should now be better able to spot potential hazards in your workplace. That starts off with getting rid of the assumption that everyone has to be a competent person. If someone appears to be a competent person, or they say they are – awesome! Believe them, but verify it before you start the work.

Realistically, verification should come in the form of documentation. For workers, it is easier of the groups to generate. As a training company, we provide ROTs with all of our courses (record of training). If you have been a participant in a safety course and always get excited that the instructor is willing to “do the test as a group” – which you think make your life easier, but perhaps it is done for a different reason – documentation. There is a completed quiz, in your hand writing, with your name on, proving you KNEW better if something were to go awry. For supervisors, life gets a little trickier. Not only do they have to have the same knowledge base as their workers in terms of safety consideration, but there is the higher onus for legal compliance. That can be found in Ontario Regulation 297. Section 2 states:

Basic occupational health and safety awareness training — supervisors

2. (1) An employer shall ensure that a supervisor who performs work for the employer completes a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program that meets the requirements set out in subsection (3) within one week of performing work as a supervisor.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply if,

(a)  the supervisor previously completed a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program and provides the employer with proof of completion of the training; and

(b)  the employer verifies that the previous training meets the requirements set out in subsection (3). O. Reg. 297/13, s. 2 (2).

(3) A basic occupational health and safety awareness training program for supervisors must include instruction on the following:

1.  The duties and rights of workers under the Act.

2.  The duties of employers and supervisors under the Act.

3.  The roles of health and safety representatives and joint health and safety committees under the Act.

4.  The roles of the Ministry, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and entities designated under section 22.5 of the Act with respect to occupational health and safety.

5.  How to recognize, assess and control workplace hazards, and evaluate those controls.

6.  Sources of information on occupational health and safety.

Now that begs the question, how does you company not only initially train the supervisors, but how do they maintain their level of competency? Is it a Health, Safety, and the Law course? Do you have internal KPIs that are reviewed and documented consistently? Have you simply relied on the 5 Step training avail online? – food for thought.

Just to really throw a wrench in your day while you have your OHSA open – check out the legal definition of what a supervisor really is; you may be surprised how that applies. I’d talk about it now, but that’s a topic for another day.


Geoff Rowatt | CHRL

Safety Trainer,

Industrial Safety Trainers Inc.