As the founder of Veritas Consulting, David Cant has been at the heart of a UK health and safety consultancy for two decades.
To most right-minded individuals, 'incompetent' is quite the insult. Incompetence implies uselessness at a given task, possibly even dangerousness, and most of us - quite rightly - would take serious offence.
In health and safety, however, competence is actually a technical term. Describing someone as 'competent' in a health and safety sense clearly states they have the right training, skills, experience and knowledge to safely carry out a given task that could be risky. Someone without the required amount of any of the above, or lack of physical ability to do the job, wouldn't be considered 'competent' to do the job. No insult intended.
Competence is vital to health and safety and managing risk safely, especially in potentially dangerous industrial settings. Employers and those with a health and safety remit are responsible for ensuring anyone hired to carry out tasks - including contractors - is competent.
Competence to carry out a job should not be confused with assigning a competent person. This is a different but less important part of risk management and involves assigning someone in a general sense - not for a specific task - who has the skills, knowledge and experience to manage health and safety. It's worth noting that this person doesn't need to be an employee of the business.
Health and safety legislation states that employers and those with health and safety responsibilities must ensure that workers are competent before allowing them to commence work.
There are a few ways to guarantee a competency, but these will differ depending on whether the worker in question is an employee or a contractor.
According to the Health and Safety Executive: 'someone's level of competence only needs to be proportionate to their job and place of work'. Essentially, the person doing the job at hand needs to illustrate they are equipped with everything they need to do that job safely. Someone who has spent their life working in an office will (probably) be competent at their own job but won't have the first idea where to start when asked to tile a roof. The reverse is also true.
Hopefully, when employing the person, you will have already been able to determine that they possess the right level of physical ability and the best attitude to perform at a safe level so that you can build on that foundation.
Of course, while it's always a point in their favour, you can't expect candidates - especially newer, younger ones - to have on-the-job experience or the exact qualifications or certificates. Hiring candidates who have already completed courses relevant to the job does mean that they can hit the ground running, as it were, but on-the-job training should be a priority for everyone. By training employees yourself or using a trusted safety trainer, you know for sure that they've been taught what they need to know and are getting the right qualifications.
Another vital part of competency, experience, comes with time and practice. None of us was born with a hammer in our hands, of course. However, with the right foundation and temperament, employees can learn the ropes on smaller, safer jobs or by shadowing more experienced employees before taking the reins themselves.
Regular risk assessments are key to ensuring workers without the right skills or experience aren't left out of their depth. They will allow you to identify any training you need to offer or improvements you need to make.
Ensuring employee competence isn't a matter of checking off a checklist. It's an ongoing joint task between you and your employee, in which you provide the training and access to skills they need, and they implement what they've learned safely and sensibly.
Ensuring competency in contractors
With contractors, guaranteeing competency is a little bit different.
Although the contractor isn't your employee, you become responsible for their safety by bringing them onto the site. This potentially makes you equally liable for accidents caused by their poor behaviour or lack of skills.
Luckily, it's a little more straightforward to identify competency in contractors. Here, there is a checklist to follow. According to the HSE, you should ask any potential contractor the following questions to ensure they're competent enough to carry out work on your site.
1. How will work be managed? Who will be responsible for each task, who will supervise, and what checks are carried out on equipment and materials?
2. Will subcontractors be used? How will the contractor check that they are competent? This will vary based on the risk and complexity of the work.
3. Can they show a record of recent health and safety performance? Eg. the number of accidents, ill health, HSE enforcement action etc.
4. Do they have a written health and safety policy? If the contractor has fewer than five employees, this isn't legally required.
5. Do they have any independent assessment of their competence, or are they members of a trade association or professional body? Both of these are great ways to show competence.
6. Do they have examples of existing risk assessments? Again, the contractor will likely only have this if they have more than five employees.
7. Do they have a safety method statement? This isn't a legal requirement but shows positive investment in health and safety.
8. Can they show relevant qualifications or proof of skills and experience?
9. Do they have relevant liability insurance?
10. Vitally, what health and safety information and training do they offer their employees, and can they provide records of this training?
Any contractor worth their salt will be happy to provide all the above to guarantee their ability to do the job. They should, in theory, also be happy to provide testimonials from other clients who have had positive experiences. The contractor wants to work for you and know that minimising any concerns is crucial.
By following the above checklist when working with contractors, you can minimise the risk of those who aren't equipped properly to set foot on your site and make you liable for any incidents.
The experience paradox
Let's say you're required to carry out a specific type of work at height. You have a number of highly skilled and very competent workers, but none of them has experience carrying out this type of job. Instead, you seek out contractors who can do the work for you.
You have two options. A friend of a friend recommended company A. They haven't provided any record of qualifications, training, or method statements and risk assessment consists of a quick run-around with a clipboard. They've got their CSCS cards, but not much else. Their reasoning? They've been in business for 40 years. They're experienced.
Option B, meanwhile, are happy to provide everything you need. They're registered with CHAS and ConstructionLine. Their workers recently completed a Work at Height refresher course, PPE training, rescue training, and training in mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPS) and PASMA. Unfortunately, they've only been in business for a year.
Of course, seeing it laid out like that makes the right choice obvious.
Option B, despite their lack of experience compared to A, are more competent. But too often, those in a position of hiring subcontractors put a huge emphasis on experience alone rather than all factors. Of course, experience is important, but being able to prove that ability, with external, relevant, independent proof is much more important.
Remember: just because someone has been doing the job for 40 years, doesn't mean they've been doing it right. Luck can be powerful, but it runs out.
The final word
Competency is crucial, but it can often be an afterthought. It's important to consider all factors when determining competency and remember that just because someone is sensible and highly experienced in one particular area does not mean they are competent in another.
It's up to you as an employer or health and safety manager to always check for and monitor competency, as it's one of the most vital tools in ensuring the safety of those onsite and minimising your own liability.