If you're an employer, or responsible for health and safety within an organisation, it's very likely you've come across the term 'competent person'.
It’s something you’ll hear a lot in discussion about health and safety, but what exactly does it mean? Do you need one? What skills make a person competent? Who can take on the role of competent person if nobody within your organisation fits the bill? And what are the responsibilities associated with it?
Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services at Ellis Whittam, answers some of the questions employers often have about the requirement for a health and safety competent person.
Ellis Whittam: Confident, competent advice
Looking for a professional to act as one of your competent persons? Few health and safety companies are prepared to take on this important responsibility, instead positioning themselves as ‘competent advisers’. At Ellis Whittam, we’re so confident in the expertise of our consultants and the quality of our service that we’re prepared to take on this title and the responsibilities it entails. We will advise and assist you to meet your health and safety requirements and become a trusted extension of your team.
What is a competent person?
Put simply, a competent person helps an organisation to comply with health and safety law and take all reasonable steps to keep people from harm. This will be one or more persons who have the ability to recognise the health and safety risks associated with your organisation and identify sensible and proportionate solutions.
The meaning of competent person can be found in Regulation 7 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This states that “every employer shall, subject to paragraphs (6) and (7), appoint one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions and by Part II of the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997.”
…That’s a bit vague!
Yes, unfortunately it is, and it gets worse. The legislation goes on to say that a person shall be regarded as ‘competent’ if they have sufficient training, experience or knowledge and ‘other qualities’. This isn’t exactly clear-cut, and for employers, such broad criteria often poses more questions than answers.
Ellis Whittam provides competent person support to Bluestone Resorts
Do I need to appoint a competent person?
Every organisation must have access to help from one or more competent persons to enable it to meet the requirements of health and safety law. This is an explicit requirement under Regulation 7 of The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
The requirement to have a competent person(s) to support your organisation applies to all employers, regardless of size or sector. Whether you employ one person or several thousand, whether you’re a low-risk office-based business, a high-risk manufacturing business or a charity, you must appoint at least one suitable individual to take on this role.
What does the role of competent person involve?
Employers must comply with all relevant health and safety laws and regulations – a legal duty which cannot be delegated or transferred to anyone else. However, most business owners aren’t health and safety specialists, which is why the law requires employers to appoint somebody to assist them.
The purpose of the competent person, therefore, is to utilise their knowledge, skills and experience to help you comply with all relevant rules and regulations and ultimately ensure the health and safety of your workers, customers, visitors and anyone else who may be affected by your activities.
Who can take on this role?
Your competent person(s) must be capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions and have authorisation to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.
As we’ve seen above, the answer to the question ‘what is a competent person?’ isn’t clear-cut from a regulatory standpoint. However, in practical terms, when deciding whether an individual can be considered ‘competent’, ask yourself:
There's nobody internally who meets the criteria. Can I appoint somebody who doesn’t work here?
Yes. The HSE explains that if you’re not confident in your ability to manage your health and safety responsibilities in-house, or if you are a higher-risk business, you can appoint an external professional as a source of competent health and safety advice.
If you’re unsure whether your in-house health and safety person is truly competent, it’s always best to air on the side of caution. To make sure you’ve really got this role covered, you will need to tick all the boxes for training, experience and knowledge, which is why thousands of organisations across the UK turn to Ellis Whittam, as we not only give them confidence in their compliance but also take the pressure off day to day through unlimited, fixed-fee Health & Safety support.
Why do other providers use the term ‘competent adviser’?
Often, health and safety companies are not prepared to commit to being one of your competent person(s) and instead position themselves as ‘competent advisers’ – likely because they believe this will make them less exposed to the regulator should something go wrong. This is not only incorrect (as negligent advice will attract regulatory attention regardless) but may indicate that they are not confident in their ability to advise you properly.
Can we be prosecuted if we don’t have access to a competent person?
Yes. Failure to appoint a competent person(s) can lead to a prosecution for breaching the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, which can in turn lead to intervention by your regulatory authority, fines, or, in cases where the consequences of a breach were extreme, even imprisonment.