What is competence?

Competence can be defined as the ability to undertake responsibilities and perform activities to a recognised standard on a regular basis. It is a combination of skills, experience and knowledge. I particularly like the acronym SQEP, from the nuclear industry, which refers to a “Suitably Qualified and Experienced Person”.

Isn’t it just about training?

Training can provide the foundations of competence, but it does not in itself necessarily result in a competent person. Training alone does not achieve competence – consolidation and practical experience are key to achieving competence. Competence will decline if skills are not used regularly (for example emergency procedures, or operating a particular item of equipment infrequently). Training therefore needs to be repeated periodically to ensure continued competence.

It is essential to assess competence to ensure that the training provided is relevant and effective. More information on how to assess competence is provided in HSE Research Report 086 (2003).

Why is competence important?

The inadequate management of competence has not only contributed to disasters such as Esso Longford and BP Texas City, but also to fatalities, personal injuries and ill health across all industries. In addition, the concern about competence is further increased by the move towards multi-skilling, delayering and downsizing. Staff are increasingly expected to take on a wider range of responsibilities with less supervision.

This short video by OPITO (Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation) outlines the benefits of a competence management system:

Training, competence and the law

The provision of information and instruction is a basic requirement of health and safety legislation in many countries, such as the UK Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which states that:

“General duties of employers to their employees.
Section 2 (2)(c) the provision of such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees”

There are also requirements in the UK Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) to provide information for employees (Regulation 10) along with health and safety training (Regulation 13).

When allocating work, you should ensure that the demands of the job do not exceed people’s ability to carry out the work without risk to themselves or others. This should take account of employees’ capabilities and the level of their training, knowledge and experience. Managers should be aware of relevant legislation and should be competent to manage health and safety effectively. Employers should review their employees’ capabilities to carry out their work, as necessary. If additional training (including refresher training) is needed, then it should be provided.

The competence cycle

An Office of Rail Regulation (2007) publication describes how people move through various competency stages.

The competence cycleWhen they first begin a new task (or are progressing to a higher level), they will be unaware (at least to an extent) of what they can and cannot do. This is a state we can call ‘unconscious incompetence’ – where people do not know what they do not know.

Through training and development activities, they will move to knowing what they do not know (‘conscious incompetence’). Once they have learned to do the task, they will initially need to think about it consciously in order to perform to an acceptable level (‘conscious competence’). For more complex tasks, this state often demands a high level of focus and concentration.

As people gain experience in the tasks, further work becomes second nature and even those situations encountered infrequently will become well-practised. In effect, people reach a level of almost automatic performance, where the only real calls on their underpinning knowledge and experience occur when they have to deal with the more extreme degraded operations and emergencies (which we can call ‘unconscious competence’).

The main danger is that without realising it people can regress and become ‘unconsciously incompetent’ again. To avoid this monitoring and reassessment of performance is undertaken at the individual level and verification, audit and review takes place at the system level.

A model of Competence Management

The Office of Rail Regulation (2007) publication outlines a Competence Management System (CMS). Like most management systems it involves designing, planning, implementing, monitoring and reviewing. This guidance describes competence management as a continuous improvement cycle defined by 15 Principles linked in five phases as shown below. A summary of the five phases can be found here. The 15 principles can be used to perform a gap analysis against your current practices.

Competence Management System
The five phases and 15 principles of a Competence Management System

Is competence enough?

Competence should not be a substitute for proper risk control, for example to compensate for poorly designed equipment. Setting people up to succeed through good design can greatly help to reduce reliance on competence.

Competence and Supervision

Supervision and monitoring arrangements should be in place to ensure that training has been effective. The level of supervision required is a management decision that should be based on the risks associated with the job, the level of competence required, the experience of the individual and whether the worker is part of a team or a lone worker.

More information on competence

Human Factors Briefing Note – Competence. HSE (2005). Includes a case study, HSE’s key concerns and a self-assessment checklist against good practice.

Competence assurance. Extract from HSE Inspectors Human Factors Toolkit. Useful for checking your own competency system. Produced by HSE’s Human Factors Team for use by non-specialist HSE Inspectors. Outlines key areas for Inspectors to review and includes a question set used by Inspectors on major hazard installations.

Developing and maintaining staff competence. Second edition published by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), 2007. ISBN 07176 1732 7 (first published by the Health and Safety Executive, 2002). Although issued as a Railway Safety Publication, this guidance is often used as the reference for competence in many safety-critical and major hazard industries. I used it to guide my HSE inspections on this topic. While some of the terms and examples have a railway bias, the text has been written so as to make it accessible to a wide range of industries, businesses and organisations. It is based around 15 key principles and factors that should be considered in any competence management system.

Competence assessment for the hazardous industries. HSE Research Report 086 (2003). Includes a review of current practice, a view of what comprises good practice in the field of competence assessment in relation to major accident prevention and a body of advice, checklists and examples of assessment. Most complex and safety-critical industries will find this guidance helpful.

Competency assurance, Human Factors Information Paper, (2020), published by the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). This publication forms part of a series of information papers focusing on human factors. This paper is designed to foster continuous improvement in the area of competency assurance. It provides information that organisations may wish to consider in the design and implementation of effective and robust competency assurance systems.

Training and assuring personnel competence, Office for Nuclear Regulation, (ONR, 2014). NS-TAST-GD-027 (Rev4). This Technical Assessment Guide is intended to support ONR inspectors (particularly Human Factors Specialist Inspectors) in assessing a nuclear licencee’s arrangements. It outlines what an effective training and competence management system should adequately address.

Information, training and instruction for workers at Major Hazard Facilities, SafeWork Australia, (March 2012). The intent of providing workers with appropriate information, training and instruction is to ensure that they can competently perform their duties and tasks without risk to their health and safety or the health and safety of any other person, and to ensure that they have a thorough understanding of the potential major incidents, major incident hazards, operational procedures and control measures at a facility. This Guide assists operators of Major Hazard Facilities to comply with their obligations to provide workers with the necessary information, training and instruction.

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