Stephen Flounders, Head of Health and Safety at System Concepts, considers how the requirement for competency applies to health and safety and what to look for when seeking advice.

Being competent can be defined as being able to do something successfully or efficiently.

While this definition itself is rather simple, the hoops we must jump through to be competent are more complex. Take driving a car, for example. We have to go through hours of learning and practising, and then pass both a theory and practical test to demonstrate that we are competent.

Similar hoops exist to demonstrate competence at work. Typically, a solicitor must successfully study a law degree, a legal practice course and then complete a period of recognised training before they qualify to practise law.

So how does the requirement to be competent apply to health and safety professionals, and what should employers look for when seeking competent health and safety advice?

Requirement for competence

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (Management Regulations) require employers to appoint a “competent person” to help them meet their health and safety duties.

Some employers will recruit for this directly, while others will use the services of third-party consultants and specialists. Whichever way an employer chooses to fulfil this duty, the requirement for the person(s) to be competent remains the same.

Competent help is fundamental to managing risks sensibly and suitably. The Management Regulations do not specify how to achieve competence, nor do they require individuals to have particular skills or qualifications. Instead, they set a broad requirement for people to give a good quality service and deliver help that is fit for purpose.

Employers who fail to appoint a competent person, and professionals who act outside their competence, not only leave themselves open to a breach of the law, but they also put others at risk of harm. In 2015, a company owner and their health and safety advisor, who was a third-party consultant, were both jailed following the death of a labourer crushed to death while working on a basement excavation in 2010.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides further examples of bad health and safety advice given by professionals. In one case, they prosecuted an independent consultant who on paper looked well qualified, with board experience and being the chair of a local health and safety group for many years. He did a risk assessment for a company, but the assessment was not “suitable and sufficient”. Following a serious accident on a machine, the HSE prosecuted both the company and consultant. The company pleaded guilty, but the consultant would not accept any causal link between the accident and what he accepted was a poor risk assessment. The consultant lost his case and has since ceased trading.

Components of competence

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) suggests that competence has three main components — knowledge, skills and experience — all of which overlap. The HSE backs this up, stating that a competent person is someone with the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to manage health and safety.

Knowledge covers familiarity, awareness or understanding gained through experience or study. In health and safety, it includes knowing things such as what hazards are and how they may affect people, and how health and safety law applies at work.

Skills are abilities that have been gained or developed through training or experience. They enable someone to do practical things, for example a risk assessment or a workplace inspection.

Experience is a result of observing, encountering or doing something. People gain experience when their knowledge and skills are tested in practice, and learn as a result of their actions.

There is also a fourth component of competence: knowing when you are not competent and acting within your limitations. This also overlaps with knowledge, skills and experience — a person can just as easily be lacking in those areas as they can be excelling.

Assessing competence

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining the competence of a health and safety professional. Competence should be proportionate to the role, the place of work and the associated hazards. The knowledge, skills and experience that make a person competent to advise on health and safety in an office may not make them competent to advise on health and safety on a construction site.

Employers can apply some general principles to help them decide whether their prospective employee or consultant is competent. Some examples are given below but they are by no means exhaustive.

  • Look at the individual’s past work experience and consider what they have achieved. Do they have the right sector experience? Have they been working in the field for many years? Have they held senior positions? All of these questions, and more, can help identify competence.

  • Check the individual’s core qualifications. Look for a general qualification, such as the NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety (or equivalent), and also consider any specialist qualifications they might need for the role.

  • Confirm that the individual has membership of the relevant professional bodies. You may require a general health and safety professional to be a member of IOSH, a noise consultant to be a member of the British Occupational Hygiene Society and an ergonomist to be a member of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors. Also check that they hold the relevant level of membership, as different levels often require members to demonstrate they have specific qualifications and work experience.

  • Look beyond the required technical skills and think about the softer skills that a person might need for the role. Skills such as communicating, influencing, negotiating, customer service, problem solving and leadership all enhance a person’s competence and supplement their technical abilities.

I’m competent, so now what?

The quest for competence isn’t something that ends once a person feels they’ve achieved it. Health and safety law, good practice and credible guidance sources regularly change, as does the way we work and associated hazards. It is therefore essential for health and safety professionals to maintain their competence through continuing professional development (CPD).

IOSH states that CPD helps health and safety professionals to create a structured career path and safeguard their professional status. All Chartered Fellows, Chartered Members, Graduate and Technical Members must carry out CPD. Affiliate and associate members can take part, but they don't have to.

CPD should never just be a tick-box exercise that enables a professional to maintain their IOSH or other membership. Committing to CPD demonstrates a willingness to keep learning and improving — it shows that you are serious about what you do, and you recognise that there is always room for improvement. For the employer, an individual who can demonstrate their commitment to CPD is likely to be more of an asset than someone who thinks they have learned all there is to learn.

Dame Judith Hackitt, the former Chair of the HSE, once stated that “the essence of competence is relevance to the workplace. What matters is that there is a proper focus on both the risks that occur most often and those with serious consequences. Competence is the ability for every director, manager and worker to recognise the risks in operational activities and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks.”

Employers and health and safety professionals should keep this in mind when considering what competencies they require, how competence can be achieved and maintained, and how it can be demonstrated.

Last reviewed 1 March 2018