Excerpted from the book, “Strategic Safety Culture Roadmap

Competence is defined as “the ability of an individual or organization to do a job properly.” Competencies comprise of a set of defined behaviors (i.e. standards) that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, development and evaluation of specific behaviors so people can do their job properly. 

Competence is multidimensional and includes [a] Cognitive Competence:  the ability to learn facts and principles; [b] Functional Competence:  the ability to make decisions, plan work, do the work, and solve problems; and [c] Enabling Competence:  the ability to lead, communicate, interact with others, and work in a team[i],[ii]

Competent people are educated in their domains (e.g. manufacturing), understand any background theory, possess practical experience of applying that theory in a wide range of situations, and can problem solve and articulate any requirements to others[iii].

Training & Experience

Training is a fundamental means of learning the “how” of safety and the specific knowledge that directly affects people’s competency to perform their work functions safely, and influences perceptions about management’s commitment to safe and reliable work systems[iv] .

Experience also plays an important role in knowledge acquisition and subsequent work behavior[v], as it determines about 28% of the knowledge necessary for job performance[vi],[vii]

Competence, therefore, is a combination of knowledge, understanding, and skill. Importantly, the appropriate competence levels cannot be acquired simply by attending a training session. The understanding and skill aspects are acquired by on-the-job experience and rehearsal.

Environmental Constraints

Effective action and performance only occur when the organizational environment, job demands, and an individual’s competencies are consistent with each other. If any one of these three components does not correspond with the others, then ineffective behavior or inaction will be the result[viii].

Strategic Competency Framework

The brief overview above shows that developing competence is concerned with [a] a person’s cognitive, functional, and social abilities, [b] their on-the-job knowledge and experience, and [c] the organization of a company’s enabling support structures.  These factors can be used to develop a strategic ‘competency framework’ as shown in Table 12 to ensure appropriate questions are asked to guide the development of a robust learning environment for safety.

Developing safety competencies will mean [a] defining what the key safety competencies are for particular job roles and the tasks involved, and [b] identifying the required enabling competencies, knowledge elements, and practical skills within an optimal organizational learning environment.

Other issues to consider include: [1] the priority being given to competence training and assessment; [2] clarifying people’s roles and responsibilities; [3] defining specific role competencies; [4] identifying people’s training needs; [5] identifying appropriate training and learning mediums; [6] providing a learning environment (e.g. training center); [7] providing people with the necessary educational opportunities; [8] providing people with the means to rehearse and apply what is learned; [9] providing on-the-job mentors to offer guidance; [10] assessing people’s competency on the job;  and [11] reviewing the impact of the competency initiative on performance.

Table 12: Example 3 x 3 Competency Framework


Person Factors

On-the-Job Factors

Organizational Factors

Cognitive Competency

Job Knowledge

Learning on the job

Educational Opportunities

How do we know we provide our people with the appropriate knowledge to do their jobs safely?


How do we identify appropriate training and learning mediums?


How do we know people grasp the meaning of the education/ training provided?


How do we reinforce the training people receive?


How do we ensure people can explain, identify, distinguish, organize & discriminate between safety critical aspects of their job?


How do we identify people’s training needs?


How do we provide people with necessary educational opportunities?


How do we provide people with the means to rehearse and apply what’s learned?


Functional Competency



Practical Experience

Organizational Capability

How do we know people can identify problems & appropriate solutions?


Have we trained people in problem-solving skills?


How do we safely simulate exposure to potential problem issues?


How do we allocate experienced mentors to new-hires to ensure their safety competency?


How do we assess people’s competency on the job?


How do we ensure we provide an optimal learning environment?


How do we ensure our educational opportunities are aligned to any changes in policies and procedures? 


How do we review the impact of our competency initiatives on performance?


Enabling Support Structures




Team Roles

How do we clarify people’s safety leadership roles and responsibilities?


How do we know people are modeling behaviors that demonstrate true safety competence?

How do we communicate our formal learning opportunities to people?


How do we provide feedback from our lessons learned to improve any educational opportunities?

How does each business unit ensure all personnel actually develop their safety competencies?


How do we know that only competent people are assigned to safety critical job roles?

Typical Safety Competency Areas

Industrial workers can be exposed to a wide range of physical hazards. These could include noise, falling objects, vibration, energy releases, contact with hot/cold surfaces and/or moving parts, as well as hazards arising from various liquids, substances, gases, etc. As such, the range of competencies required to identify, assess and control these is wide. Covering an array of job roles, typical topic areas requiring competence in safety would include:

Table 13: Typical Topic Areas of Safety Competence

Typical Safety Competency Areas


High pressure systems

Basic firefighting techniques

Incident reporting and classification

Breathing apparatus - general use

Incident investigation

Compressed air

Job hazard identification

Confined space entry

Lockout/tag-out and permit to work

Cutting implements

Machinery use

Electrical safety

Magnetic fields

Emergency response

Manual handling and lifting


Mechanical handling (forklift trucks, cranes)

Explosive powered tools

Near-hit hazard reporting

Fire prevention and control

Pressure systems in the workplace

First aid

Risk assessment

Gas cylinders

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

HSE management systems

Unsafe act auditing

Hazardous materials management

Working at heights

Hazardous materials handling



In addition, it is likely that other skills involving leadership, communications, and teamwork are also necessary.

Often, companies spend a lot of time, money and effort training people to get things right, but with a few exceptions (e.g. military) do not train to the point that they cannot get it wrong.

Insufficient or poor quality training and/or a lack of reinforcement on the job can obviously hinder learning[ix]

Where possible, integrating safety into initial task training (e.g. scaffolding) is much better than training people to do a job, and then adding on safety aspects at a later date. Although challenging, it is worth companies considering how this can be achieved when training people for their jobs.  Combining task analysis and safety risk assessments to identify and align critical safety behaviors with a set of specified task behaviors might be a practical way forward.


Success in safety requires people to acquire a specific set of competencies that relate to their jobs roles, as well as to the organization's goals. In high risk industries, a lack of managerial and/or operator competency can have devastating effects. In other industries, a lack of true competency in safety could account for many injuries. As such, developing a strategic approach to increasing people’s safety competency is essential. Often, this is best achieved by joint efforts between Safety and Human Resource professionals to avoid duplication of effort and synergy with the wider organizational goals (e.g. developing overall leadership competency).

Four Safety Competency Takeaways
Define key safety competencies Assess jobs to identify the key safety competencies required to do the job safely
Determine the fit between people’s existing competencies and their job demands Assess and align people’s competencies, job demands and the organizational learning environment so that all are consistent with each other
Address and gaps identified Provide the necessary education opportunities to develop the appropriate safety competencies
Re-assess people’s ‘on-the-job’ competency Ensure people exhibit the desired competency and asses the impacts on performance











Dominic Cooper, PhD and Lucas Finley MS
B-Safe Management Solutions Inc.
2141 Holiday Lane
Franklin, IN 46131, USA
Tel: +1 (317) 736 8980

[ii]Galunic, C., & Rodan, S. (1997). Resource recombination’s in the firm: knowledge structures and the potential for Schumpeterian innovation.INSEAD.

[iii]Boyatzis, R..E  (1982) The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance.

[iv]O’Connor, P. Et al., (2011).Measuring safety climate in aviation: A review and recommendations for the future, Safety Science, 49, 128-38

[v]Rowe, R.M. (1988). The nature of work experience, Canadian Psychology, 29, 109- 110.

[vi]Schmidt, F.L., et al., (1986). The impact of job experience and ability on job knowledge, work sample performance, and supervisory ratings of job performance. Applied Psychology, 71J,, 432-33.  

[vii]Quiñones,  M.A., et al., (1995). The relationship between work experience and job performance: a conceptual and meta-analytic review, Personnel Psychology, 48, 887-910.

[viii]Boyatzis, R..E (1982) The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance. Wiley

[ix]Ferster, C. & Skinner, B.F. (1957) Schedules of Reinforcement.

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