As an employee, the designated competent person is entitled to enjoy a workplace that is free from existing or potential identifiable hazards that could cause injury, illness or death. But as an extension of the employer, the competent person has an obligation to represent the employer's safety and health program on site by promptly abating hazardous conditions and correcting unsafe acts.

Those of you who have followed my articles on roofing safety in this magazine have a good idea of the primary roles of the competent person on the jobsite. This designated employee is an extension of the employer, yet still remains an employee. As an employee, she or he is entitled to enjoy a workplace that is free from existing or potential identifiable hazards that could cause injury, illness or death. But as an extension of the employer, the competent person has an obligation to represent the employer's safety and health program on site by promptly abating hazardous conditions and correcting unsafe acts.

Under the best scenario, failure to do so could violate OSHA standards and result in a fine. Under the worst-case scenario, it could result in a gut-wrenching fatality. And, as many employers have learned, once an OSHA hearing on a violation has been closed and the penalty has been assessed, the details of a Department of Labor case may become public under the Freedom of Information Act, making them available to the legal community as evidence in civil and criminal proceedings. In such an event, the competent person and the employer will probably be asked to testify and spend prolonged hours in court defending the actions taken or those that failed to be implemented leading up to the on-the-job personal injury accident.

The Role of the Competent Person

For this and many other reasons, it's crucial that employers understand the competent person selection criteria in light of the OSHA standards. After all, this individual will be directly representing you and your firm on a daily basis. You have authorized him or her to take all actions required to keep your jobsite safe. Without question, your corporate wallet is open to this employee. Your written corporate Safety and Health Program may be a thorough and complete representation of the hazards and controls your employees can expect on the job, but if it is not reviewed, trained, equipped, verified and disciplined by your CP, it cannot legally be considered implemented. Consider your CP to be your sheriff and all your employees his deputies. According to such a metaphor, you could be considered the mayor of your town.

It is through the process of observation, action and verification that hazards are accurately identified. On any given workday, the competent person is capable of assessing (1) the degree of probability that something could go wrong; (2) the level of severity if it does; and (3) the means and methods of promptly reducing or eliminating these hazards. It is by this process of job safety analysis (JSA) that the CP selects the appropriate combination of engineering, administrative and personal protective equipment hazard controls for every step of the job. Once the hazard has been abated, the CP reviews the site to determine how effective the controls were. It is possible that either the root cause of the hazard was improperly or incompletely identified or else the control selected was inappropriate, insufficient in quantity, or misplaced in location. Perhaps the employee training was lacking or misdirected. Sometimes the control fails not due to selection but insufficient inspection. Improper repairs of out-of-service equipment or lack of preventative maintenance can result in the failure of an initially adequate hazard control.

Designating the CP

I have always used the metaphor that corporate safety is a marathon, except the banner over the finish line reads "Start Over." When the employer understands that competency is a cycle that begins on every jobsite, he also realizes that the design and adoption of his corporate safety and health policies are dynamic, not static. We realize that both competency and complacency can be considered cyclical human behaviors. They continually reinforce themselves and radiate out to those working around us, influencing them to either comply with or violate our safe work practices.

Assign a trained and experienced competent person on every site who can constantly compare observed acts and conditions to the safe work practices and hazard controls in your program. Only then can you can be assured that the cycle of competency is being regenerated. I recommend that the following eight criteria be used in designating your competent person.

1. Experience. The OSHA standards require only that the candidate meet the first two of these criteria - experience and training. The Catch-22 inherent in experience is notorious. How can you generate experience without competency first? And how can you gain competence without experience? Assigning your personnel in pairs rather than individually will go a long way toward ensuring personal safety in those OSHA subparts requiring a CP. Have your senior personnel buddy up with a new hire or inexperienced apprentice. Make it clear to the more experienced worker that his or her tasks should include overseeing the operations of the new worker as well as explaining the role of the competent person on a daily basis.

2. Training. Many of the safety and health programs I have reviewed in my time as a safety consultant had the same faulty common denominator. Most employers expect that safe work practices can be absorbed by osmosis or inhaled from the worksite atmosphere. Experience is not training, nor is training to be confused with experience. If a new hire is placed with a very experienced journeyman who lacks site or task-specific training, then you should only expect him to give the new worker a firm background in his own poor work habits and unsafe acts. Do not assume that two weeks spent working with this employee will suffice for new-hire hazard awareness training. Review your training programs continually, not just annually. It has been my experience that as construction workers travel from job to job, the hazards observed and abated on one site seldom appear in the same manifestation on another site.

3. Commitment. OSHA considers the employer's CP designation a sound one if based solely on training and experience. However, if you read those standards where a CP is called for, you soon discover a myriad of additional responsibilities and required skills. I consider the employee's commitment to the task as the most important deciding factor when selecting a competent person.

At no time should any on-site task or obligation obviate or pre-empt the competent person's duties or status. When it comes to site safety and health, the CP has absolute power and control over the status of the job. He may call for all the overtime required to prepare and inspect the site before the shift, as well as the time to document the day's activities in detail at shift's end. He may even be the person responsible to hire and lay off personnel as he sees fit. The CP should, therefore, have a high level of occupational and personal maturity, a trait not necessarily abundant on many construction projects. Is this person actually capable of placing the safety of his co-workers above his own livelihood? Nothing should deter the CP's efforts to identify and abate each and every hazard.

4. Communication. Most managers are usually capable of carefully repeating instructions, but a CP must exhibit the total communication package. He or she must be a highly skilled listener as well as an effective speaker. Holding a pre-job, pre-shift, pre-task briefing meeting with the crew is considered critical to the success of the project. A competent person should also be skilled at conducting the post-job, post-shift, or post-task debriefing as well. In these meetings, the CP utilizes the most accessible, dependable safety equipment within his reach - his own workers. Listening to workers tell it in their own words often provides answers to the most important direct cause questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? And how much? Without completing this cycle, an effective site-specific, worker-specific, task-specific training program cannot be successfully implemented.

5. Courage. Every time I train and evaluate a competent person, I inform them that within 30 to 60 workdays their CP authority will be seriously challenged. According to the feedback I've received, I have never been wrong. Most of the dangerous challenges come from those above them in the food chain. Despite all of your training, don't be surprised if you are unprepared for such a confrontation. After all, your employer gives you a substantial pay and benefits and expects you to meet the company's expectations promptly and completely. But in the case of being designated CP, the employer must yield 100 percent of his authority to balance 100 percent of the responsibility. There is no question as to who has the final word on the site. The employer has made an intelligent selection if his CP has the courage to run his job according to safety-first protocols.

6. Decisiveness. In many cases, a decision delayed may have the same effect as a decision avoided. Educating, enacting and enabling form the trinity of safety implementation. The employer must enable the CP to make hard and prompt decisions for crew safety. A safety-based decision can involve an expensive chain of events. All job estimates are based on material, labor and equipment allocations, and if the CP is not involved in reviewing bids before they are let, the only area from which safety costs may be offset is in the profits.

Removing the workers from the danger zone until a suitable hazard control plan has been developed, implemented and verified can require a serious commitment to safety. Moving them to a safe refuge without any thought of project schedule or budget may also prove to be a courageous act. But rapidly evaluating the probability of a hazard as well as the severity of its existing and potential effects in order to determine the best course of action in the least amount of time defines prompt decision-making. Hesitation and opportunities lost in consultation can prove just as deadly as making an uninformed decision.

7. Availability. This almost sounds too simple. The CP has to "throw his shadow." That is, the CP has to be present on the job - not just after an incident or accident, but anytime when the site-specific integrity of safety and health program is either violated or suspect. OSHA's notorious P-words include: probable, possible and potential. In other words, "Get to and stay on site." That's where the CP belongs. On a large site, he must be in communication with his distant foremen to ensure his prompt response in an emergency. In today's downsized construction market, it isn't always convenient or practical to remain on the site, but it is crucial for the competent person to be prepared to perform both his expected and unexpected duties.

8. Willingness to change. Adapting to change is the most difficult characteristic to master as a CP. When it comes to competency, however, living with change is imperative. From the weather forecast to a crew's personnel, change can be distracting. When you're entrusted with the job of observing details, measuring accurately, acting promptly and recording diligently, even small distractions can kill. So a willingness to change can be likened to getting comfortable with discomfort.

Look for someone with an ability to let go of past mistakes, criticize without blame and learn from every experience, including those of others. Select someone who takes it personally but doesn't make it personal. It's more of an art than a science. A willingness to change procedures, practices, evaluations and even core beliefs is the ultimate "first and last weapon" for the competent person. It is the ability to try a different approach when everyone else is convinced that it's just no use. Think you can't change a strobe light on top of a 3,000-foot tower safely? There is always a way, and a patient, open-minded approach will find it. The best solutions often follow the KISS rule ("Keep it simple, stupid") and usually begin with an ability to change your frame of reference while assiduously guarding your bombproof priorities: (1) safety, (2) quality and (3) productivity.