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The Guardian Fall Team Blog

As we all know, complying with the standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a central focus of the work we do in the fall safety industry. OSHA, as well as other regulating bodies, shape and set the requirements that all the equipment we make and sell must meet. And OSHA’s influence doesn’t stop after our products leave the warehouse.

The end users of fall safety equipment have just as many, if not more, regulations to comply with. And though they set the regulations, OSHA doesn’t provide monitors to make sure that work is being done safely, although they do perform inspections that result in hefty fines if it isn’t. But of course OSHA doesn’t levy fines at random; their standards are detailed and nuanced, and are developed by people with experience, training, and education in the construction and general industries. And, in their standards, OSHA includes stipulations that must be addressed before work can even begin, one of the most important being the need for the employer to classify at least one worker as the Competent Person on the job site.

So who can be a Competent Person? OSHA tells us that it is someone who “…is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them” (OSHA 1926.32(f)).

There are two central aspects of this definition. The first is that the Competent Person has the authority, given to them by the employer, to immediately stop work if they deem that hazards exist that may cause harm to an employee. This authority to halt work is what sets the Competent Person apart from a Qualified Person (a designation also substantially referenced in the OSHA standards). A Qualified Person has substantial experience and/or an accredited degree or certification, and is someone whom OSHA requires to perform tasks such as developing fall protection plans for employees engaged in leading edge work, designing systems, and installing horizontal lifelines. They are not, however, able to perform the same duties as a Competent Person, because they have not been given explicit permission by the employer to be responsible for worker safety at a specific job site.

The second primary role of the Competent Person, that of identifying ‘existing and predictable hazards,’ is more difficult to define as directly.

The Role Of The Competent Person

First and foremost, the Competent Person must be trained and experienced in the specific type of work being done. This exact requirement isn’t directly stated by OSHA’s definition, but it can be easily inferred. Experience with the specific type of work being done is vital, because after all, someone who welds for a living will in all likelihood not be the best person to supervise the safety of people doing roofing work; a welder may be able to tell you the safest way to use a torch, but probably couldn’t explain how to properly wear a safety harness—which for a roofer working a few stories above ground is essential to performing their job safely. If the Competent Person is sufficiently knowledgeable though, then identifying existing hazards is easy enough.

But it is in the concept of ‘predictable’ hazards where we’re confronted with the most complexity.

Prior to work beginning, the Competent Person must ensure a number of tasks are completed: they must comply with the fall protection plan established for the given job site; they must do a walk through of the job site and account for all hazards and all anticipated work zones; they must select and inspect all safety equipment; they must ensure that all employees are sufficiently trained in the tasks to be performed; and they must establish all swing fall and fall clearance requirements, and ensure that a project-specific rescue plan is in place should a fall occur. This all must also be written up and communicated to everyone on the job site, and again, all of this is before work even starts.

The duties of the Competent Person must be performed thoroughly and with care, but the difficulty is that in a week or two (or possibly even within minutes) the entire layout of the job site can change. A wall can go up, a hole can be dug, scaffolding can be erected, or machinery can be moved. The Competent Person might notice that, for example, a particular anchor point increases the likelihood of swing fall, but deems it safe because there are no obstructions with which a falling worker could collide. Once a new wall goes up however, an obstruction may now be in the path of the fall, which may require the anchor point to be deemed unsafe. Planning ahead is key for a Competent Person to perform their job well.

Again, we find another reason why having direct experience in the type of work being done is so vital for a Competent Person to keep the lives of their workers (not to mention their employer’s checkbook) safe from harm. It is a rare case indeed when only one type of work is being performed on a job site. In fact, OSHA specifies over 20 different types of work where a Competent Person is obligated to perform some kind of safety-related supervisory role that draws on their expertise and regulatory knowledge. Consider the fact that if a worker has a task that takes them 6 feet or more above the work surface, then wearing fall protection gear becomes required, which immediately brings all OSHA 1926.5 regulations into play in addition to regulations specific to the task itself.

As an example, let’s imagine that we’re on a job site where a new home is being built. There is scaffolding up, ladders in use, and a crew on the roof using fall protection equipment. The employer assigns someone the role of the Competent Person, and then leaves to go to another project. Right then, an OSHA inspector arrives.

The inspector notices that the scaffolding is a combination of components from two different manufacturers. Can the Competent Person ensure that the galvanic action of dissimilar metals will not reduce the strength of the scaffolding below the OSHA required 4 times its maximum intended load (1926.451(b)(11))?

And they notice there are different types of ladders in use. Can the Competent Person ensure all ladder rungs are not spaced beyond their maximum requirements (1926.1053(a)(3)(i-iii))?

And they see a potentially dangerous amount of slack in the safety line of one of the workers on the roof. Can the Competent Person explain in detail the training this employee received (1926.503(a)(2))?

If the Competent Person is unable to provide answers, fines will be issued and work will be delayed until conditions become safe. It is clearly not an easy role to be in, which is why for many projects it greatly benefits the safety of workers (and the quality of work they do) to have multiple Competent People on site. In our example, as long as their roles are clearly defined, one Competent Person could be responsible for scaffolding, one for ladders, and one for fall protection. Such division of labor helps ensure that all the above questions are more easily anticipated and answered, and that the home gets built safely and on time.

Every year, OSHA provides information about their regulations that are cited most frequently, and those that are assessed the highest penalties (see the following link: http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/frequent_standards.html). Guess which regulatory categories were on the top of both of these lists in 2011? Scaffolding and fall protection. And ladders show up in the top ten on both lists as well.

Work-specific knowledge and expertise are vital, but when a Competent Person combines these qualities with a strong understanding of OSHA regulations, they are that much more prepared when it comes to looking for existing and predictable hazards, and are that much more capable at ensuring the safety of their workers.

But no matter how detailed OSHA regulations are, they can still at times be abstract, and sometimes experience or training, no matter how substantial, will not apply to a given situation. This is why Guardian recommends all workers who are assigned the role of the Competent Person receive additional training before beginning their duties. Competent Person classes are perhaps the most direct way to supplement or begin achieving competency, and the class offered by Guardian Fall Protection is one of the best around. Our instructors, Tommy Lee and Doug Boehm, have decades’ worth of experience in all aspects of the construction industry, as well as a thorough understanding of OSHA standards and how to work with OSHA inspectors. Our intensive 2-day course covers everything from the responsibilities of the Competent Person, to how to properly inspect fall safety equipment, to developing prompt and effective rescue plans. It is also much more substantial than competing alternatives, such as “Drop Test Trailer Training,” or 4-hour or 1-day classes offered through other providers, which do not adequately cover all necessary material.

OSHA requires that employees be trained in recognizing and reducing risks related to fall hazards, using and maintaining fall protection systems, and more, and Guardian’s Competent Person training class is geared to address all OSHA regulations relating to the fall protection industry. As we have seen, the responsibilities of a Competent Person are numerous, and we at Guardian see it as our responsibility to provide the best training possible to help lay the foundation for their success in keeping workers safe.