Scaffold Safety - What is a Competent Person?

Electrical workers have distinguished themselves as a highly skilled and professional group. The tasks they are called upon to perform and the level of training required for proficiency demand this recognition. The Occupational Safety and Health Admin-istration (OSHA) will meet with resistance when citing an electrical contractor for failure to have a competent person on a job where scaffolding is used. How does OSHA define a competent person? How can a person who is knowledgeable in the safe erection, use, and dismantling of scaffold fail as a competent person? To understand OSHA’s determination of a competent person, we need to analyze its definition in the standard and review the compliance directive issued for scaffolding. (See OSHA Directives CPL 2-1.23—Inspection Procedures for Enforcing Subpart L, Scaffolds Used in Construc-tion—29 CFR 1926.450-454.) The standard establishes the rules for employers to follow. The standard defines a competent person 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 authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.” For the laymen, two terms need further clarification: “capable” and “authority.” The source for this and the object of our analysis is OSHA’s compliance directive. Before reviewing the explanation found in the directive, it must be pointed out that competent person is the first item in it where instructions are given that address the actual inspection. It states, “The compliance officer shall determine the identity of the competent person and assess the training and experience qualifications of that person at an early stage of any inspection.” From here it refers to a lengthy appendix on “Competent Person.” First, it explains “capable,” “....A competent person must be knowledgeable about the requirements of this standard and have sufficient training or knowledge to identify and correct hazards encountered in scaffold work.” Next, it describes the evaluation of “authority,” “.....The exercise, or lack thereof, of this authority may frequently be the deciding factor in assessing whether a particular individual is in fact a competent person...” It may appear that we still have a subjective benchmark for “capable.” However, the explanation of “authority” provides greater insight. Simply stated, if a hazard is identified and not corrected, a competent person is not present. If the same logic is applied to “capable,” failure to identify a hazard may be to show lack of ability. Therefore, any hazard found can represent not only a violation for that hazard, but for competent person as well. The burden of proof is on the employer to show that the failure to eliminate the hazard is neither a lack of knowledge nor an exercise of authority. To ensure a competent person has the appropriate knowledge and authority, he or she must be able to fulfill all the responsibilities required by the standard. Only a competent person may permit the modification of scaffold components. They must approve the use of scaffold components from different manufacturers used in conjunction with each other. Their approval ensures that the resulting scaffold is structurally sound. For example, he or she should not allow dissimilar metals to be used if galvanic action will reduce the strength of any component. The manufacturer’s recommendations should be reviewed and may be relied upon by the competent person. The competent person is responsible for direct connections on suspension scaffolds. He or she must confirm that the surfaces are capable of supporting the loads to be imposed. Roof or floor decks must be evaluated to ensure they are capable of supporting the loads to be imposed and connections checked for proper design. All ropes must be inspected for defects prior to each work shift and after every occurrence which could affect a rope’s integrity. Multipoint suspension scaffolds must be evaluated to determine whether they need to be tied or otherwise secured. A competent person qualified in scaffold erection, moving, dismantling or alteration is required on site to supervise and direct all scaffold erection, moving, alteration or dismantling activities. All work must be performed by trained and experienced employees selected by the competent person. He or she will also have to determine the feasibility and safety of using a safe means of access as well as the feasibility of fall protection. Although the competent person does not have to document their determination, the CSHO will record their evaluation. This will include information on claims of infeasibility or greater hazard, which will be gathered by on-site observations and interviews with the competent person and other affected workers relating to any such claim. All scaffolds and components must be inspected for visible defects before each work shift and after any occurrence which could affect the scaffold’s structural integrity. On very large frame systems, the inspection is only required for areas to be used that work shift by employees. The standard does not require that the competent person document the inspection findings. Any manila or synthetic rope being used for top rails or midrails must also be inspected by the competent person as often as necessary (daily and/or prior to use) to ensure that it continues to meet the strength requirements. During storms or high winds, work on or from scaffolds is prohibited unless a competent person has determined that it is safe. Rather than prohibit the use at a specific wind speed, this determination allows work to continue if protective measures have been instituted, and work may safely be done from the scaffold. OSHA recognizes the subjectivity and complexity of competent person issues. CSHOs are encouraged to evaluate all factors relative to the requirements. The compliance officer must evaluate all the factors on the job site and the requirements associated with a competent person. For example, the competent person’s duties may be shared among several individuals. Each must have the qualifications and authority to act in his or her area of expertise. The employer may hire a consultant to act as competent person. If so, this consultant must be on site during all applicable operations. On a multiemployer site where you rely on the controlling contractor to supply a competent person, all employers whose employees use the scaffold are responsible for ensuring the individual(s) selected are knowledgeable. The compliance officer will determine whether, for the specific site and operation in question, the employer has effectively complied by designating another employer’s employee as the competent person. Each violation will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The CSHO will consider the “general contractor’s and subcontractors’ safety programs and contract requirements, as well as copies of safety meeting minutes, written correspondence between contractors, and employer and employee interviews” to determine responsibility for violations. It requires evidence of the knowledge and authority to correct scaffold hazards. Be aware that other standards (1926.62 Lead, 1926.103 Respiratory protection, 1926.500 Scope, application, and definitions—Fall Protection, etc.) require a competent person. Unless you eliminate all related hazards, expect a question on the existence of competent person on your job site. O’CONNOR is with Intec, a producer of safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at (703) 628-4326, or by e-mail at

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