Why identifying competence is not just a health & safety matter

January 23, 2017

Competent and Competence
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “competent” as being adequately qualified or capable and effective. Competence is considered a legal requirement under English common law. The general requirements for competent persons came from the general duties imposed on an employer in s.2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Regulation 7(5) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 went on to state that, a person is deemed to be competent if he or she has an adequate combination of training and experience, or knowledge. Regulation 7(8) also requires employers to consider appointing a (nominated safety) competent person within their employment, in preference to one who is not in their employment. This means the employer cannot completely delegate safety to a third party, but must appoint in-house and, if necessary, must provide adequate training to help that person become competent. Certainly, when I talk to a client about who would be the best person to appoint in-house as the nominated competent person for safety, I usually point out that someone who has a good grasp of the organisation’s activities, but is also well versed in understanding the operational side of the business, is usually best placed to become the competent person, providing they still have the thirst to want to learn more.

However, purely from a common sense viewpoint, the prevention of injury and ill-health in the workplace inevitably depends on the presence of competent people at all levels in any organisation. Competence was referred to in the case of Wilsons and Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English (1938), which defined the duty of care that an employer owed to its employees, and this included the need to employ competent people.  Subsequent case law has indicated that to be a competent employee, people must have a positive attitude to health and safety at work, and behave responsibly in the workplace, and, that competence is more than just the possession of qualifications, but also involves having sufficient and relevant experience.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and the Approved Code of Practice, (ACOP) to the now withdrawn CDM 2007 Regulations, stated that to be competent, an organisation or individual must have:

  • sufficient knowledge of the specific tasks to be undertaken and the risks which the work will entail;
  • sufficient experience and ability to carry out their duties in relation to the project; to recognise their limitations and take appropriate action in order to prevent harm to those carrying out the designated work; or those affected by the work;
  • specific knowledge about the tasks they will be expected to perform, and the risks associated with these tasks; this may come from formal or “on the job” training;
  • appropriate experience; people are more likely to adopt safe working practices if they understand the reasons why they are necessary; and past experience should be a good indicator of the person’s/organisation’s track record;

The HSE has been concerned for some time that the approach to the appointment of competent people has subsequently become over bureaucratic and costly. It has recently tried to set a different and less prescriptive approach. In the Guidance document L153 Managing Health and Safety in Construction of the CDM 2015, the focus now is that organisations must have the capability to ensure the health and safety of those involved in the work/project.  Competence should be seen by employers as a long-term issue, building on the basics of selection, training, management of experience and life-long learning and ensuring people have the capacity in terms of time, resources, managerial and supervisory capability to deliver the project.  Furthermore, a (construction) workforce should be able to demonstrate competence through qualifications based on agreed national standards.

In other words, when appointing competent people, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure that those persons have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience appropriate to the role they are appointed.

Reasonable steps need to be proportionate and not over-bureaucratic, and will depend on the complexity of the project/work/sector, and the range and nature of the risks involved. This means, in practice, that those appointed should be capable of understanding how to:

  • identify the significant risks are likely to arise within the workplace, and
  • prevent those risks or manage or control them to acceptable levels;

Put simply, competency describes the behaviour that lies behind competent performance, such as critical thinking or analytical skills, and describes what people bring to the job. In contrast, competence describes what people need to do to perform a job, and is concerned with effect and output, rather than effort and input.

In the HSE’s Managing for Health & Safety (HSG65), competence is defined as “the ability to undertake responsibilities and perform activities to a recognised standard on a regular basis. It combines practical and thinking skills, knowledge and experience”. However, two terms of competent and competency are now very much interchangeable as job performance requires a mix of behaviour, attitude and action.

As part of the review, HSG65 makes some suggestions as to what to look for on ineffective management in relation to competence, including:

  • Lack of awareness of key hazards/ risks.
  • Employees lack the skills, knowledge and experience to do their job.
  • Health and safety advice and training is irrelevant, incompetent or wrong.
  • No standards of performance are set; and people are not held accountable.
  • Only knee-jerk reactions follow incidents/near misses.
  • The organisation does not know what it needs to do to move forward.

I think I would add a couple more common failures I have observed within quite a few SMEs especially. Very few job descriptions have written into them the need to demonstrate health and safety awareness and accountability at all times, and fulfil all necessary health and safety requirements. Likewise, another mistake is thinking that the safety competent person has to be formally trained in safety, when really the key criteria is a full understanding of how the business works, and a practical grasp of what the real safety hazards and risks are.

Competency Frameworks in Health and Safety

Organisational capability is effectively the in-house policies and systems that set acceptable health and safety standards, to ensure not just legal compliance, but identifies the resources and people to make sure standards are delivered and health and safety is effectively managed.

An organisation’s policy on health and safety, therefore, needs to include consideration to the level of competency required throughout the organisation, to ensure there is a competent workforce. Determining competency levels and then identifying, maintaining and monitoring the knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary to meet and maintain those levels can be a challenge, so the development of a competency framework can assist in managing this key element of the management system.

Competencies are essential in securing a competent workforce, and describe both the functional skills and knowledge that enables an individual to perform a technical task, as well as the softer skills in terms of how individuals are expected to behave. Competencies can, therefore, be seen as forming the building blocks for competence.

As such, a “competency framework” can be described as a structure that sets out and defines each individual competency (i.e. the behaviours, knowledge, skills and technical attributes) required by individuals at every level of the organisation, so as to achieve and maintain a competent performance to the required standard.

A well-developed health and safety competency framework that defines the necessary skills, knowledge and behaviours can be used for a number of purposes. By identifying the necessary key health and safety competencies of individual roles, these can be used as part of the organisation’s recruitment and selection procedures, through the inclusion of the competencies in job specifications and consequent selection procedures. This will enable the prospective employee’s current competencies to be identified, and whether any areas lacking are capable of being developed if recruited.

Perhaps the most obvious purpose of a competency framework is to assist in the identification and analysis of employees learning and development requirements. The aim is to understand the amount and types of learning and development that will be needed (typically through information, instruction, training and supervision) to ensure that all employees have the right knowledge, skills and behaviours to perform the jobs they do.

By setting competencies at the appropriate level, the employer can then benchmark against the framework to identify and remedy any shortfalls between the current level of competency possessed by the workforce, the required level and what learning and development, if any, will be necessary to bridge the gap.

Employers need to ensure that the competence performance levels required are being met and that any information, instruction, training or supervision provided has been effective in terms of enabling such performance to be undertaken.

As such, the key competencies identified can form part of an employee’s performance review or appraisal process. Through discussion and employee feedback, this may assist in identifying any key areas of concern or gaps, and enable planning for additional activities to bridge the gaps.

For many organisations, some form of organisational change is inevitable, so as to respond to dynamic internal and external influences. Change can be brought about by changes in technology, legislation, and business demands, etc., all of which have the potential to change the organisation’s competency requirements. By mapping competencies on a framework, this can be adapted and changed to track any organisational changes, thereby enabling the necessary new or revised competencies to be identified, and gained through appropriate means. Change can also mean having succession plans and/or transferring knowledge, skills and responsibilities to other employees.

A competency framework will provide clarity to Managers and workers alike, as to what is expected of them, and can provide a clear focus for future development of all employees.

Developing a Competency Framework

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), many Managers and individuals find it hard to use the frameworks to help achieve their goals and, therefore, the goals of the organisation. Typical criticisms include that they are often lengthy, complex, misunderstood and not user friendly. They can also be seen as just another paper exercise, with little value to real-world application.

Developing a competency framework can take effort and should be carefully planned. The following steps can be followed when developing the framework.

Prepare by defining the purpose and scope of the framework (e.g. organisation-wide, department or job specific).

  1. Collect the relevant information from job safety analysis, observations, interviews, good practice guidance, National Occupational Standards, etc.
  2. Build the framework by determining competency levels, identifying the competencies required and validating them against specific roles.
  3. Implement the framework through good communication and awareness processes that explain the purpose, benefits and utilisation of the framework.

In respect of the actual template and content of the framework, this will depend upon organisational circumstances and scope of the framework, but will normally include some form of matrix linking roles/functions to the competency, typically through a “competency statement” along with required behaviours or skills necessary to fulfil the competency. Some organisations combine levels of competency with various layers of the workforce, for example, Level 1 refers to all workers with Level 4 being Senior Managers.

As a simple example, a specific job role could be that they are trained as an emergency first-aider. Generated from legislative requirements, the competency statement could be “to provide employees with immediate attention and emergency first-aid treatment if they are injured, or taken ill at work”. From this, the competency behaviours and skills can be described, and will include having the necessary level of knowledge of first-aid treatment appropriate to the risk and needs assessment. This can be described as a technical skill, which is required to ensure the first aider is competent when giving basic first aid treatment.

However, many employees require certain key behavioural competencies, such as having “strong communication skills with the emotional resilience to cope regularly with stressful and angry callers, staying calm and pleasant at all times”. Physical competencies may require “undertaking manual handling activities on an hourly basis.”  Having identified these, the organisation can then use the framework to ensure it selects the most appropriate individuals to cope with the demands and competencies of the job role, as well as ensuring any training is commensurate with the job risk.

Retaining Competence

The main barriers to retaining competence are a lack of practice and changing circumstances. This is why certain training, e.g. first aid, needs to be refreshed at regular intervals to keep up that competence.  Also, we can all develop bad habits over time, so key messages need reinforcing, e.g. manual handling training, advanced driver training, forklift truck training to name but three.

Knowledge may be refreshed or increased by attending training courses or workshops, which also helps develop contacts made and provides the ability to discuss issues with other people. Knowledge can be simply re-reading in-house safe systems of work, or reading industry-related publications.

Developing experience can vary from taking on more job responsibilities, through to external networking meetings with people in similar jobs, as, in the less formal gatherings, anecdotal evidence can provide guidance on a good, or bad, means of approaching a problem. Certainly, we know from our public training events that many delegates feel they gain from listening how other delegates approach specific matters, as well as learning by working with others in interactive exercises that require them to problem solve in a supporting learning environment.

Finally, the issue of developing any employee’s personal qualities can be addressed through a more formal performance review process or appraisal system across an organisation. Effective performance reviews can be a very efficient means of enhancing personal qualities, but conversely remember that a poor review can damage, and even dis-empower, a competent person.

A safety competent person can develop through a mixture of formal training, as well as networking, and possibly having access to someone that can coach them on more of the safety requirements.


Many organisations have a tendency to compartmentalise health and safety, rather than recognising that not only does it need to be a key business priority, but that health and safety competencies are required in all jobs, to a greater or lesser degree. Identifying early on in the recruitment process what key health & safety competencies are required for each job role, will help appoint people who are better able to fulfil the subsequent job demands, be they physical or mental.  Using key business competencies as part of performance reviews will help further establish job requirements, increase job productivity and will focus training and development needs.  Fulfilling health and safety requirements should always be an aspect of job performance which should be regularly assessed, especially at Management level.  Remember, the duty of care becomes greater the higher within an organisation someone sits.

Defining competence and training competent people is what helps organisations to thrive, and be better able to cope with constantly changing demands, as well as reducing health and safety accidents/incidents to a minimum. A good health and safety culture is a guarantee to a successful business, so start thinking about introducing a competency framework that goes beyond just legal heath and safety requirements, and you may find that this in one safety initiative that has positive and far reaching outcomes.

Our Consultants would be pleased to advise you on any element of the issues arising from this newsletter.