Who Is Competent?

And how exactly is that different from qualified?

By Alexandra Walsh

Most workers and their supervisors would like to think of themselves as competent on the worksite. But when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards refer to a “competent person,” the term does come with certain requirements.

Business owners need to know it is their responsibility to designate a competent person to oversee the safety of their work crews against the potential risks and exposures on a jobsite. OSHA defines a competent person as follows:

Competent person means 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. (29 CFR 1926.32(f))

The competent person must be familiar with the hazards of the work and the proper controls to use for employee protection. For example, if the jobsite includes workers being exposed to heights, a competent person must provide training to workers on fall hazards and the equipment or other controls that will be used to protect them from falls.

While there is no set amount of training time or certification required, it is imperative a competent person themself have adequate training and knowledge about fall hazards and equipment before providing training to others. Determining whether an employee is capable of being a competent person rests completely on their employer.

A competent person is knowledgeable about applicable standards and can identify workplace hazards relating to a specific operation.

A competent person must also have knowledge of applicable OSHA standards and the ability to identify hazards related to a specific operation.

A competent person is required under many of the standards for the construction industry and within the general industry standards. Some OSHA standards have specific requirements for a competent person that include excavation work, working at heights, when exposed to silica, daily crane inspections, and demolition work.

Authority and Knowledge

There can be confusion around the issue of a competent person as some employers might think a competent person is simply the most senior person on a jobsite. However, it is more nuanced than that.

Perhaps the most significant nuance has to do with authority. Does the senior-most person have the authority to correct hazards or stop work if needed? They must have the authority to make the necessary corrections, and if they lack that authority, they truly cannot be considered a competent person.

Another requirement is demonstrating knowledge. A perfect example of this is being able to identify hazards. In fact, this is why OSHA doesn’t limit the qualifications of a competent person to only education or training.

Jobsite conditions are one clear indication of this knowledge. If workers are climbing ladders while not maintaining three points of contact or working from scaffolds that are not properly set up, those conditions are providing significant signs the workers’ employer may not have a competent person—or at least, not an effective one.

Say, for example, people are working high up without any fall protection, or a lot of damaged electrical cords are lying around, and PPE is not being used. If those kinds of hazards are present, then an OSHA inspector will almost be forced to assume the person deemed competent isn’t competent and pursue documentation to support that conclusion and issue a citation.

Competent vs. Qualified

The difference between a competent person and a qualified person can also be confusing as OSHA’s regulations do not get into explicit details about how each role operates and interacts with the other outside of their accepted definitions.

The term “competent person” is used in many OSHA standards and documents. As we noted earlier, a competent person is knowledgeable about applicable standards and can identify workplace hazards relating to a specific operation—and has the authority to correct them and stop work if necessary. Some standards add additional specific requirements, which must be met by the competent person. Competency is demonstrated, not certified.

In addition to competent persons being able to recognize and reduce hazards, one worksite can have a number of competent people or just one person who is competent in many areas. Competent people are not required to have recognized degrees, certificates, or extensive experience.

A “qualified person” as defined by OSHA, on the other hand, is defined as follows:

Qualified means one who by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training, and experience, has successfully demonstrated his ability to solve or resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project. (29 CFR 1926.32(l))

A competent person must be able to identify fall hazards within the jobsite and solve those issues or take action to stop the work until the issues can be resolved. A qualified person has the knowledge to design and supervise the installation of the protective fall protection systems to be used on that jobsite.

It is possible for the competent person to be the qualified person, but they must meet the criteria in both definitions to perform both roles.

Although common, a qualified person is not the only person who can train workers on fall protection hazards and equipment. A designated competent person can also be a fall protection trainer if they meet all the qualifications for trainers and competent persons outlined in ANSI/ASSE standards.

Under ANSI/ASSE, competent persons are responsible for supervising, implementing, and monitoring fall protection programs, and for this reason, must undergo training on:

  • Applicable fall protection standards and regulations
  • All equipment and practices applicable to the scope of work
  • Surveying fall hazards
  • Inspecting fall protection equipment components and systems
  • Assessing fall protection systems and components to determine whether they are safe for use
  • Implementing fall protection and rescue procedures.

As well as being competent in training techniques and methods, ANSI/ASSE specifies that fall protection trainers are required to possess subject matter expertise, training experience, and technical knowledge in the subjects they teach through training, education, experience, and continued education.

By fulfilling the previously mentioned ANSI/ASSE requirements for competent persons and trainers, an individual is not only able to train others on fall protection hazards and equipment but is also considered to be a qualified person under OSHA standards.

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As using the example of fall protection shows, competent and qualified persons have distinct roles in the workplace. While the competent person certifies the safe use of systems, the qualified person designs or installs engineered systems.

The appointment of qualified and competent persons is the responsibility of employers, so it is crucial that the roles, and when each is needed, are understood. By better understanding the key differences and similarities between competent and qualified persons, employers can rest assured that their worksite is safe and OSHA compliant.


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.