OSHA’s definition of a competent person

OSHA requires all construction employers to have at least one competent person on a job site.

Most of your employees are competent (by general definition) or they wouldn’t be your employees. So you can just say your foreman is in charge and you’re done. Right?

Unfortunately, no. If you do that, you run the risk of failing an OSHA inspection.  They define the term Competent Person (CP) in a very particular way, and they’ll expect for your designated CP(s) to demonstrate that they qualify.

You have to select your CP(s) deliberately and take measures to ensure they’re prepared to pass inspection.  Beyond the demands of OSHA, your CP plays a crucial role in job safety and supervision. So, what is a CP, and how do you designate one?

What is a Competent Person?

OSHA defines a CP 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” [29 CFR 1926.32(f)].

In other words, a CP has two important things:

  1. The knowledge to recognize a hazard, AND
  2. The authority to correct one

It’s not a special certification you can earn or a class you can take.  It’s a combination of experience, familiarity with OSHA standards, and permission from you, their employer, to take any corrective measures necessary.

The term “competent” should not be confused with other OSHA terms like:

  • “Authorized,” which means you have approved or assigned that employee to perform a specific duty or be in a specific area.
  • “Qualified,” which means that, by education or experience, an employee has demonstrated the ability to solve problems relating to a particular job.
  • “Certified,” which means an employee has passed certification exams from an accredited organization for the work they’re going to perform.

An employee could be qualified, authorized, and certified in a task, but unless you’ve given them the authority to stop all work and change the way things are being done, they are not a competent person.

Although OSHA has no extensively spelled-out standards for proving that someone is competent, your CP will be tested during an inspection.

To test whether a CP exists, OSHA will:

  • Ask on-site employees who the CP is for a particular task, to check if it’s widely known
  • Evaluate the CP’s knowledge of relevant standards and their ability to identify a hazard
  • Check whether they have the level of authority required to make a change

If you don’t have a CP on site that satisfies all three criteria for each specialized activity, you can be cited for not having a competent person.  Because functionally, you don’t.

How Do You Choose the Right CP?

The number of competent person(s) you need on a job site will vary by its size, complexity, and the available experience of your workforce.  You can have a single CP on-site, as long as they have the knowledge and authority for all activities being performed. You can also have multiple CPs covering separate activities.

Some discreet work activities (like excavations and scaffolding) explicitly require a CP under OSHA regulations, but any and all construction activity has to proceed under the supervision of a qualified CP.

The first step in designating a CP should be selecting the right person for the job.  You need someone experienced in at least one specialized activity who has proven themselves to be responsible and is able to take charge of a situation.

The second step is making sure they’re fully prepared for the role.  They need to understand the responsibilities that come with the title, and they need to be familiar with all applicable OSHA standards.  They also need to understand all the potential source(s) of danger in their area.

It may be helpful for them to prepare by taking more extensive coursework to refresh their knowledge or acquire a more in-depth understanding.  However, completing a course won’t guarantee OSHA deems them competent.

That’s why the third step needs to be verifying that the person really qualifies.  If they go through training, make sure you see their test results or other class records.  Give them an evaluation period where their abilities are observed and tested, preferably by someone who has already proven themselves competent in that area.  And since OSHA is going to give them a pop quiz, you probably should, too.

Once you’ve designated your CP, make sure everyone on the job site knows that they are one.