How Does OSHA Define a Competent Person?


OSHA requires all construction employers to have at least one competent person on a job site. There's a joke in there somewhere, right? But seriously, on the face of it, that standard sounds straightforward.  Most of your employees are competent (by general definition). Otherwise, they wouldn't be your employees.  So you can say your foreman is in charge and you're done, right? Unfortunately, no. If you do that, you run the risk of failing an OSHA inspection.  An OSHA Competent Person (CP) is defined in a very particular way, and they'll expect your designated CP(s) to demonstrate that they qualify. You have to select your CP(s) deliberately and take measures to ensure they're prepared to pass an OSHA inspection.  Beyond the demands of OSHA, your CP plays a crucial role in job safety and supervision.  It can't just be a formal title. So, what is a CP, and how do you designate one?

What is an OSHA Competent Person?

OSHA defines a CP as "one 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" [29 CFR 1926.32(f)]. In other words, a CP has two crucial things:

  1. The knowledge to recognize a hazard, AND
  2. The authority to correct one

It's not a special certification you can earn or a class you can take.  It's a combination of experience, familiarity with OSHA standards, and permission from you, their employer, to take any corrective measures necessary.

Don't Confuse a Competent Person with Other OSHA Terms

The term "competent" should not be confused with other OSHA terms like:

  • "Authorized," which means you have approved or assigned that employee to perform a specific duty or be in a specific area.
  • "Qualified," which means that, by education or experience, an employee has demonstrated the ability to solve problems relating to a particular job.
  • "Certified," which means an employee has passed certification exams from an accredited organization for the work they're going to perform.

An employee could be qualified, authorized, and certified in a task. However, unless you've given them the authority to stop employees from working or change the way they work, they are not a competent person.

How to Test for a Competent Person

Although OSHA has no extensively spelled-out standards for proving that someone is competent, they will your CP will be tested during an inspection. To test whether a CP exists, OSHA will:

  • Ask on-site employees who the CP is for a particular task, to check if it's widely known
  • Evaluate the CP's knowledge of relevant standards and their ability to identify a hazard
  • Check whether they have the level of authority required to make a change

If you don't have a CP on-site that satisfies all three criteria for each specialized activity, OSHA can cite you for not having a competent person.  Because functionally, you don't.

How Do You Choose the Right Competent Person?

The number of competent person(s) you need on a job site will vary by its size, complexity, and the available experience of your workforce.  You can have a single CP on-site, but they must have the knowledge and authority.  You can also have multiple CPs covering separate activities. Some work activities (like excavations and scaffolding) explicitly require a CP under OSHA regs, but any and all construction activity has to proceed under the supervision of a qualified CP.

Step 1: Select the Someone with Experience

First, you need to select the right person for the job.  You need someone experienced in at least one specialized activity who has proven themselves to be responsible and able to take charge of a situation.

Step 2: Prepare Them with Training

The second step is making sure they're fully prepared for the role.  They need to understand the responsibilities that come with the title, and they need to be familiar with all applicable OSHA standards.  They also need to understand all the potential source(s) of danger in their area. It may be helpful for them to prepare by taking more extensive coursework to refresh their knowledge or acquire a more in-depth understanding.  However, completing a course won't guarantee OSHA deems them competent.

Step 3: Give Them an Evaluation

That's why the third step needs to be verifying that the person really qualifies.  If they go through training, make sure you see their test results or other class records.  Give them an evaluation period where their abilities are observed and tested, preferably by someone who has already proven themselves competent in that area.  And since OSHA is going to give them a pop quiz, you probably should, too. Once you've designated your CP, make sure everyone on the job site knows that they are one.

Bottom Line: Be Prepared with OSHA Outreach Training

Chances are that if you run a tight ship, the person you choose as CP will be qualified. But taking extra measures to ensure OSHA will agree is going to save you time and trouble later. Make the process affordable and convenient by refreshing their knowledge with online training.  With 20 years at the forefront of online OSHA training, we've proven that we can give them a solid foundation. To learn more, check out our OSHA 30 hour and OSHA 10 hour courses—DOL cards and free study guides are included!

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