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

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Yet many managers, supervisors and leaders find it difficult 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 to do 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 that employees know they have the authority to control the hazard or stop the work if conditions are unsafe. However one variable 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 accountability. This becomes clear when considering the comments made recently 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 a spider is going to bite me?”

• “My boss asked how I got poison ivy. How can I stay out of poison ivy when I’m tromping through tall grass to get to work?”

• “We’re in such a hurry to get the work done that I don’t have time to put all that stuff away. 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 get poison ivy easily 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? Sure, leadership and company culture are factors; however, the primary variation here 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. First you choose a destination (goal) and then map the best way to get there (strategy).

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