Who Is Your Competent Person?

Who Is Your Competent Person?

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Every person on a job site is responsible not only for his or her own safety but also the safety of those around them. When safety is the most important goal on the site, everyone gets to come back to work the next day. Small companies in the decentralized wastewater industry do not typically have an employee assigned specifically to oversee safety. That means that the supervisor or crew leader is often the competent person, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

Workers should always feel free to express their safety concerns to the crew leader on the site at any time. When they do, the leader should stop, listen to the worker, and evaluate the potential safety issue that has been raised. Installers must identify critical issues, follow OSHA standards, and have a written safety plan that is followed by all. Under these conditions, an accident is an unforeseen incident that occurs while following established protocol instead of an incident resulting from an unsafe condition on the site. 

When excavations are made to 4 or more feet and workers must enter the excavation, OHSA standards apply — including the requirement for a competent person on the site. The competent person must have a higher level of training in order to make decisions regarding the types of hazards present on the site and appropriate safety precautions. OSHA standards state that a competent person is:

  • By way of training and/or experience, is knowledgeable of applicable standards
  • Capable of identifying commonly foreseeable workplace hazards
  • Designated by the employer
  • Authorized to take appropriate action in response to any hazard

(See additional resources for competent person training on the OSHA website.)

The competent person is responsible for general safety requirements, but in particular (by law), the competent person is responsible for classifying the soil on the site. This classification is different from the United States Department of Agriculture classification. It is critical that the installer understand the distinction between the two classification systems. The USDA classification is essentially based upon the size of the particles present in a given soil. The OSHA system is also based on particle size but includes additional criteria regarding soil stability. The OSHA classification determines what sort of protection systems must be used for a given excavation and is based upon the relative risk of cave-in of an excavation. When one considers that most trench fatalities occur in trenches that are 5 to 15 feet deep, it makes sense that soil classification is a critical component in any installation. The decisions that the competent person must make affect the safety of all employees working in and around excavations.     

If soil classification is required because workers must enter an excavation deeper than 4 feet, all of the following requirements must be met:

  • The soil must be classified by the competent person.
  • The classification must be based upon at least one visual and one manual analysis.
  • If the site includes layers of soil that fall into different classes, the least stable layer determines the overall classification.
  • The soil must be reclassified as needed when conditions change.

The component person will also need to a leader who creates and enforces the company polices. Effective and clearly communicated safety policies with a matching disciplinary program are crucial to any safety program. If the employees don't know what's expected of them, they can't fault them for making mistakes.

Protective measures

The purpose of classifying the soil is to determine what protective measures are required to prevent cave-in and keep workers safe around excavations. Sloping, shoring and shielding are the three standard preventive measures used in excavations less than 20 feet deep. Benching may also be used in conjunction with shoring.

If sloping the sides of an excavation is used to prevent cave-in, the appropriate amount of sloping required is dependent upon the OSHA soil classification. It is critical that the competent person obtain appropriate OSHA training prior to making such decisions. Trench excavations must be re-inspected by the competent person as needed. They must be re-inspected whenever hazardous conditions exist, prior to the start of work, and after every rainstorm. If soil conditions change across the site, the excavation must be re-inspected as well.

Scheduling an OSHA site visit

Upon request, OSHA will conduct programs on the importance of and proper use of adequate safety and health equipment. Employers are strongly encouraged to take advantage of these services. Your competent person should be on site during this visit to maximize this opportunity. These consultations are provided independently of any enforcement activity regarding hazards that may be identified during the visit. However, if an employer fails to take immediate action to eliminate employee exposure to an imminent danger or fails to correct a serious hazard within a reasonable time, enforcement action may be taken.

Random OSHA site visit

random OSHA site visit is where your competent person needs to step up and be ready to explain the testing performed and the measures taken to meet the OSHA requirements. This is one of the key activities an employer should keep in mind when selecting the competent person. The competent person must have the appropriate training and fully understand the requirements; but just as critical is having good people skills under pressure. Having good leadership skills will help both get crews to follow the requirements and handle safety related challenges that arise during construction or a site visit.

About the author: Sara Heger, Ph.D., is a researcher and educator in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota, where she also earned her degrees in agricultural and biosystems engineering and water resource science. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is the President of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and she serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Ask Heger questions about septic system design, installation, maintenance and operation by sending an email to kim.peterson@colepublishing.com.


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