Health and safety - The importance of competence | EEF

Health and safety - The importance of competence

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Job ‘competence’ is a much discussed term, most often relating to the attributes that someone needs to fulfil a particular role. This is particularly important in health and safety, because a failure of competence can be fatal for the individual, their team and the business itself.

So how should we interpret ‘competence requirements’ when thinking about health and safety?

“The ability to independently perform a role or task to the required standard.”

Competence is about ‘performance’, and independence is about the ability to perform without (or with minimal) supervision. In health and safety, the ‘required standard’ is often a procedure or process, such as ‘Safe System of Work’.

 “The ability of an individual to always implement the safe system of work without the need for supervision.”

The point about supervision here is important, because it is what employees do when the supervisor isn’t looking that is critical. A key aspect of health and safety competence is the individual ability to always follow the system of work, day and night, irrespective of who is watching what is going on! This is called ‘unconscious competence’.

And the ‘system’ itself, where does that come from? A risk assessment, of course.

Once the system has been established, what are the factors that a colleague must have to be able to follow the system of work?

Although the list is probably (almost) endless lets pick out some of the essentials:



Employees not only need to be trained on how to conduct the job, yes, but more specifically in the safe system(s) of work that make up the each aspect of their job.

One important point here – training must cover the safe system of work not just the work method itself, supporting materials such as SOPs and competence assessments must reflect this requirement.


Knowledge (or information)

In order to fully understand their job and the role of safety, employees must be able to answer:

  • What the hazards and risks are in the work and how they are controlled

  • How to recognise hazards and risks in the work

  • Basic rules and standards of performance that apply to the job

  • What to do if something goes wrong

  • Who to talk to if the colleague has a concern

  • Information about policies, procedures and performance



Some roles will require the performer to have a certain level of experience before the performer can be considered competent.

In fact part of the process of developing individual competence might involve deliberate exposure to circumstances that create a learning opportunity – this is what fire drills all are about.



Some types of work will require skill for the work to be accomplished successfully and safely. Skills might be cognitive (ideas and concepts), technical (things) and/or interpersonal (people).

Skills can be acquired through training and experience and may be evaluated by formal assessment (qualifications). Lack of skill could be detrimental the ability to conduct work safely – think of Rope Access!



We have all heard of a square peg in round hole – it doesn’t work. Capability refers to the physical or mental ability of a colleague to follow a safe system of work. Assessing individual capability can be tricky and must be done with care, the process can be improved by defining specific capability needs for a job before appointing to the role.

In a way, all the of the above can be viewed as ways to influence or structure the behaviour of a colleague at work when carrying out their work, these competence factors can be formalised through company policy and colleagues can become competent by complying. But what about competence factors that are less obvious and perhaps more difficult to influence?

What about competence factors that are less obvious and perhaps more difficult to influence?


Attitude determines behaviour, and the behaviour we want is for the safe system of work to be followed.

Can we influence attitude? Potentially through providing training, information, supervision (leadership), and skills.



Sticking to the system of work can be tough – day in and day out. That’s why strong motivation, encouragement and team support are needed from supervisors.


Situational awareness

Another factor that might influence our behaviour and cause us to underestimate the consequences of our actions is a perception that the outcome of deviation from the system of work is not particularly serious. Over familiarity with the task is one way in which we might tend toward complacency regarding the downside of deviation.

Consulting effectively and communicating with colleagues about the need to follow the safe system and what happens if this is not observed. Lack dialogue is a breeding ground for complacency regarding risk.

The above are some of the factors that make up basic health and safety competence, there are many more depending on the complexity of the environment and work to be done, however the following infographic might serve to provide a simple summary of the principle:



Health, Safety and Sustainability Area Lead - South

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