“One of the easiest things OSHA could do to strengthen worksite safety is pay more attention to its competent person requirements,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan refers to the OSHA construction standards that mention or require competent persons. According to 29 CFR 1926.32(f), a competent person is “ 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 authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.” In some situations, a “prompt corrective measure” requires shutting down the operation or the jobsite.

“In theory, at least, the competent person serves as the employer’s safety deputy,” says O’Sullivan. “His or her job is to make sure the site is safe and take action if it’s not.”

In practice, however, the quality of competent persons is notoriously uneven because OSHA does not spell out what training they should have. Designated by management, they may just be the most senior employee on the site. However, though experience matters, it is no guarantee that the designee has a full understanding of the hazards.

Frequently, competent persons are designated on a day-to-day basis so that a standard’s requirement is met, but guidance and authority is not clearly delineated. This can become a life-and-death matter when the competent person lacks the authority to take immediate action, close down an operation or direct a response to a life-threatening crisis.

“While clearer delineation of proper training for competent persons would be helpful,” says O’Sullivan, “OSHA is clear on the need to designate them. In its inspections, the agency should pay close attention to whether the designated competent persons actually have the knowledge and authority to really do their job. More OSHA emphasis would encourage contractors to strengthen their competent person designations.”

Laborers and LIUNA signatory contractors can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to perform as competent persons through courses offered at LIUNA local training centers across the United States and Canada.  Additional skills training information is available through the LIUNA Training and Education Fund.