Get Competent


An often heard but seldom understood word is “competence”. Asking someone at work whether they are competent is likely to raise eyebrows but in health and safety circles competence carries a very specific meaning. Here we examine what health and safety professionals mean by competence, the legal requirements and how to improve competence in your organisation.

What is ‘Competence’?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “competent” as “being adequately qualified or capable and effective”. This practical definition is borne out by regulation 7(5) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (Management Regulations), which states that a person is deemed to be competent if he or she has an adequate combination of training and experience or knowledge.

However, the definition of competence also includes the qualities that the person needs in order to adequately fulfil the tasks required as part of the function in which he or she is competent. This gives 3 aspects to competence:

  1. The knowledge of the subject.
  2. The experience to apply that knowledge correctly.
  3. The personal qualities to undertake the functions effectively.

Competence is a combination of appropriate practical and theoretical knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in a work situation. The degree of competence for performing or supervising a particular task must be proportional to the complexity of the task and the associated risks. For example, a person assembling and erecting a tower or scaffold would need to have a higher level of competence than a person using it. A competent person should be capable of:

  • Undertaking the specified activity safely, at his or her level of responsibility.
  • Understanding the potential risks related to the activity that he or she is to carry out.
  • Detecting and reporting any defects or omissions.
  • Recognising any implications for the health and safety of himself or herself and others.
  • Specifying appropriate remedial actions that may be required.
  • Refusing to do a particular task if the potential risk is assessed as too great.

Competent-case-studyThe Need for Competence
A number of Health and Safety Regulations specify the need for competence but the main duty placed on employers is by the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 (HSWA) to ensure the “health, safety and welfare of those affected by their work activities”. An important aspect of this duty is indicated in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance HSG65 Successful Health and Safety Management as “competence”. From a health and safety management viewpoint, competence concerns:

  • The competence of the workforce in carrying out its functions.
  • The competence of the person charged with the duty of advising on health and safety matters.

Furthermore Regulation 7(1) of the Management Regulations requires that “every employer shall…appoint one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions”. This assistance can be in the form of in-house health and safety competent persons or an external source such as a Health and Safety Consultant.

Other common Health and Safety Regulations that specify the need for competence include:

  • Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007
  • Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
  • Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986
  • Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002
  • Electricity at Work Regulations 1989
  • Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998
  • Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998
  • Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998

Competence in Practice
The 3 aspects of competence discussed earlier (knowledge, experience and personal qualities) each have different forms of measurement and can be expanded in different ways.

Knowledge is most often measured by an examination. This is normally accredited through professional or national qualification schemes, e.g. City and Guilds, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) or Scottish National Vocational Qualifications (SNVQs).

The most basic level of competence can be obtained from courses aimed at managers with some Health and Safety responsibility, e.g. Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) Managing Safely and the British Safety Council (BSC) level 1 Certificate in Health and Safety at Work.

The lowest acceptable standard and indication of competence for someone acting as a Health and Safety Advisor is the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH) general certificate or the British Safety Council Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health.

The highest levels of competence are indicated by the possession of a NEBOSH level 2 diploma or BSc or MSc in occupation health and safety. This will usually be further confirmed by chartered membership of IOSH (CMIOSH or CFIOSH).

Occupational training is a reasonable means of ensuring that a person has the required level of knowledge however this is likely to be valid only if the instructor has all the required knowledge, is able to pass this knowledge on and has the time to do so properly.

Knowledge may be refreshed or increased by attending training courses or workshops. Another effective method is to prepare and present a training course.

Experience is difficult to measure objectively so it is often measured subjectively by observation and by past involvement in similar activities. The person’s supervisor or manager should be able to assess the person’s experience by general observation and by the quality of the work. This, however, relies on the presence of the supervisor or manager and his or her ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the experience of the person concerned.

competent-summaryExperience can be extended by undertaking tasks that are not usually performed. Examples include a safety engineer undertaking a health awareness promotion campaign and an occupational health practitioner undertaking a machinery inspection.

A particularly good way of widening the experience of the competent person is to encourage secondments or temporary transfers to a different work area. The benefits can often outweigh the short-term problems that this temporary transfer can bring by giving the competent person a wider range of experiences.

Personal Qualities
Personal qualities can strongly affect the safety and quality of a person’s task or function. The main areas of personality affecting these qualities are motivation, perception and attitude.

  • Motivation is the person’s reason for undertaking a function. The degree of motivation has a direct effect on how he or she functions; this can include varying degrees of positive or negative influence on how he or she approaches a task.
  • Perception is the way that a person views or understands his or her work and environment. Errors frequently occur when perceptions are incorrect or ill informed.
  • Attitude is the way that a person will react to a given situation. A person’s attitude will have a direct effect on quality and the safety of the tasks he or she undertakes. Again, this can be positive or negative.

As with experience, these qualities may be measured by the supervisor’s or manager’s observations in performance appraisals.

The issue of developing any employee’s personal qualities is most often addressed across an organisation through the human resources department. This can be achieved through a number of means, but the most common is by encouragement through effective personal appraisal systems.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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