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‘Competent Persons’ vs. Competence


By Simon Hope

One of the eternal problems our industry grapples with is defining the differences between training, competence and experience.

These days, it appears that, right or wrong, paper conquers all. It seems that unless you have the correct pile of bits of paper accumulated, there is no point in applying for a job that you have been successfully been doing for years.

In the past, highly skilled people of many years of experience were considered “overqualified” for many jobs and thus turned away. Now, we seem to have gone to the opposite extreme: It seems that you need a degree to empty trash cans.

Who’s Qualified?

Looking at the current workforce, you would think that we have a band of people who could waltz into a part-time job as a brain surgeon with all the “qualifications” that they have (and apparently need). But reality is a different kettle of fish!

U.S. OSHA defines a “Competent Person” as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

But back to our original issue: the differences between training, competence and experience. This is where things start to fall apart.

We are regularly presented with such concepts as “fully trained workforces,” “experienced contractors” and “certified inspectors.” U.S. regulators define a “Competent Person” as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

But what does all this mumbo-jumbo really mean?

Trainers and Training

Training is a great word along with its best friend, the Training Course. Now, these are very useful if used properly and taken in the context intended. The idea of getting people and showing them how things are done and work is great, but it doesn’t make them experts.

You could sit a whole load of monkeys in front of a white screen and jabber away at them for days, “training” them, with nothing taken on board. And yet, certificates of attendance are issued and away they go, “trained.” Absolutely useless!

We also have the wonderful situation where trainers are trained to deliver course content without having any actual knowledge of, or experience with, the content. This never ceases to amaze me.

Testing, Testing…

Of course, people eventually realized that attendance alone does not give the degree of comfort required for letting these individuals loose on an unsuspecting public. That ushered in the next phase: testing.

So we now move on to the “monkey see, monkey do” type of assessment. This is of limited use, but at least it forms a basis on which to build.

 Construction Safety Council

 Construction Safety Council

 You’re certified. But are you qualified?

The trouble is that in the real world, this level of training means that the trainee is now considered an expert and is turned loose. The crash weeklong course that is “assessed” every four hours is absolutely lethal; by the last day, what was done on the first day is a distant memory.

Assessment Pitfalls

Where we go next is to competence and experience. These two should go hand in hand, but rarely do. Competence should be an assessment of knowledge and experience, along with an individual’s capability (which comes with experience).

This assessment should be conducted under the auspices of a recognized body, so that consistency can be maintained.

The problem is that these assessments start out with the best intentions, but as reality hits home, the bar drops and standards are slackened to get people through.

This might be for a variety of reasons, but the almighty dollar tends to be a main driver. In-house assessments are often driven by personality, and friendships so can be unreliable.

Power to the Pros

Don’t get me wrong. There are a huge number of professional and very competent people out there, and this is not aimed at them. Their competence comes from their experience: from taking training properly in context, learning from people who know how to do the job and can communicate, then applying it with years of practical application.

These people are not your one-day wonders who bring professions into disrepute. They should be the ones who, when trade tested, will fly through a properly constituted, meaningful test. That, not a pile of paper, will prove unequivocally that they can really do the job.

Bring back proper standards, apprenticeships and long-term training schemes, so that we can have confidence in our workforces—that they are capable of producing a quality job, using the correct tools in safe and diligent manner that returns the best value in the long term.

Now, let’s define quality….


Simon Hope

Three decades as a self-employed coating consultant for the oil majors, military, offshore contractors and coating manufacturers—plus stints in shipping, power generation and other industries—have provided plenty of fodder for Simon Hope’s sharp observations. He welcomes “a healthy or unhealthy debate” on any coating topic, adding: “I never cease to be amazed at the messes that individuals manage to achieve—and, having reached rock bottom, seem to think that dynamiting is the way forwards.”



Tagged categories: Certifications and standards; Construction; Contractors; Education; Health and safety; OSHA; Quality Control; Regulations; Worker training

Comment from floyd menzie, (2/10/2013, 7:52 PM)

great article the only thing i have to add is apprenticeships or whatever training need to be done if possible by the old dogs if u will they have made alot more mistakes to learn from in thier time than someone in a trade for only 5 or 10 years now thats not to say it is always true but more stable

Comment from Per Gabrielsson, (2/12/2013, 5:38 AM)

Simon. I have some 50+ years experience in the marine coating field and I am sad to say that I do not have any of the "famous" certificates you are mentioning. I have no remorse being that "old fashioned", after having met people with a bunch of certificates, not having a clue of corrosion protection, coatings and coating application. For me it seems that most of these "certificates" are connected to the ever growing demand - to earn as much money as possible. I feel sorry for the guys, who just have received their diploma and then are sent out to different sites as "experts". Such should be done on an apprentice-base, so that they can learn from experienced, real experts and in that way grow and get the self confidence needed for their task.

Comment from daniel holmes, (2/15/2013, 8:10 AM)

I am still pondering the question "Do you think all Coatings Inspectors should be able to blast and apply coatings" Lot of youngsters become CIP -1 2 3 with absolutely no field experience -Makes for an adversarial relationship on site -"Well the book says" I see this more and more.Not taking anything away from these obvious intelligent individuals but...

Comment from james morrison, (2/17/2013, 11:43 AM)

I feel all coating inspectors should have some experience in sandblasting and spraying different types of coatings,I've seen to many painters in Missouri have ssspc c3 c5 and lead training , and now the c,a,s, certificates and asked the painters how many mills of zinc do u put on to get 3 dry and he said 30 wet I told him to get the f--- out of here they need to quite passing them just to get there quota or money cause we pay for this training. Teach them not just give them the certificate.

Comment from David Horrocks, (2/21/2013, 6:58 AM)

Comment from David Horrocks MICorr (2/21/2013)Hello Simon, great blog! I agree with most that experience is the only way forward, coming from a background of blasting and coating / supervsion / management / inspection, I feel my daily comments on site are very well versed and taken on board by my 'audience'. Only yesterday I witnessed activites of coating applications by 'trained operatives' that to be honest left me shaking my head once more, painters and sprayers going about their duties like a robot and not having any incling to even carry a bit of sand paper! the supervisor and 'trained inspector' failed to pick up on basic defects and the applicator was left to just apply coatings at will, soem checkls had been carried out I.E. DFT readings but the the quality guy clearly could not multi-task and assess the visual aesthetics of the coated steel, 'shocking'. Yes they need to be trained and certified but surely a trade association / governing body would be the way to stamp this out, this is something im looking into to try and improve the quality produced by these 'trained and certified / experienced guys', my quest continues........

Comment from shane hirvi, (2/21/2013, 3:48 PM)

Sad to say it but many certifications obtained by contractors and their employees seem to merely window dressing so they can qualify to bid on projects.

Comment from Bob Hubbard, (3/2/2013, 11:40 AM)

Although I have been retired several years, it appears many things have not changed - sadly. I sent your blog to my son who is a Six Sigma black belt instructor, and if you would like to see his comments, I'll send to you. You might contact him at You seem to have much in common.

Comment from Simon Hope, (3/19/2013, 5:16 AM)

Hi gents/ladies? I am glad to see that this has stirred up some commentary, at least it seems that I am not the only disgrunted old f4rt on the block! Thanks for all the comments, it makes it all worthwhile and I shall continue taking the medication to keep the blood pressure under control!!

Comment from Billy Russell, (3/20/2013, 5:10 AM)

SPOT ON !!!! Agreed, both agencies (Nace & SSPC)turned out a bunch of certificates, the mid-life carreer changers with zero blasting and coating experience, 3rd party inspection firms put these guys on multi-million dollar projects for "BILLING HOURS" egineering firms that had design and build state contracts took on coating inspection as a side line, they in turn hired these certificates of expertise, held by guys with no real experience that mis-lead the client and bring projects to a stand still,by (making up things as they go) this is going on still! that being said, the c-5 and the QP contractors that clearly wrote a check to get thier certification are as much a part of the problem, we can bring change inorder to fix what is really going on in the field it will take complete honesty, tough love, from the guys that are willing to stand up and fix this !!!!! (my name is Billy Russell and I approve this message)

Comment from shane hirvi, (3/20/2013, 6:20 PM)

Ya know Billy I agree with many of the things you say but I really do not agree with the manner in which you go about saying it. You have zero subletly. Has NACE and SSPC pumped out tens of thousands of inspectors that haven't a clue what they are doing? Most likely they have. Does SSPC drop the ball on some of their jobsite inspections? Absolutely they do. Do contractors make mistakes? Absolutely they do. Do owners make mistakes? Absolutely they do. I lament the fact that there are tens of thousands of inspectors who lack any experience what-so-ever. Are engineering/coatings inspection firms in the business of making money by billing hours? Yes. As the owner of an inspection firm I am bummed out when I can't bill 60 hours a week. That is how we stay in business and that is how our employees get paid. Suggesting that inspection firms deliberately hold up projects is an insult to the business owners in this industry. Does this practice exist? I would have to believe that the practice of holding up a project to bill more hours exists to some extent but it is not pervasive in the industry. As with the industry as a whole this business is ever changing and mostly a gray area and it is not black and white--there is no one simple fix that will change our industry to perfection. Inspectors who are like a bull in a china shop cause just as many problems as guys that couldn't tell you the difference from a spray tip and a spray gaurd. There are certainly problems with all parts of this business but when you attack every part of the industry as crooked, dirty, lazy or underhanded you tarnish all of our reputations and you yourself become part of the problem as well. I have worked very hard in this business to get where I am today and am proud of the work our little company does and am damn proud of the people that work for us--please don't disrespect the entire industry because you want to make a point on an internet discussion board. Like I said, Billy, I agree with many of the things you talk about especially the safety stuff--people shouldnt be dying because somebody in doesn't know. I really like your passion but thousands of people can see you on here try adding a little class and humility bro it will take you much further.

Comment from Billy Russell, (3/22/2013, 11:55 AM)

Shane, I do respect your point, and never intended on my view to be interperted as disrespecting the entire industry, My loyalty is to the integrity of the coating system I am applying, I came up on my tools and will fully admit that I can be very Blunt at times this comes from years in the field actually working in the trenches, were being nice didnt work (old school) I will try and be more concious of my statements offending people that was never my intention, (tough love) also has its place, I feel that unless someone is willing to say the truth about what is really going on with these 3rd party inspection firms we can not fix the actual problem, there are outstanding experienced inspectors out in the field, that have more knowledge than I do, but in the last 5 years this new generation of guys that I have been involved with, I clearly saw that they were playing games, for Billing hours. This Nations inferstructure is falling apart, we can by working together bring possitive change to our industry, but I dont think window dressing the truth about the few bad apples is the answer. I will give you my word Sir this will be my last public comment on paint square, I do not ever want to be considerd part of the problem, I do things right in the field for both the owner and the contractor unbiased in every way possible, the integritty of the coating system being applied period. I wish you much sucess and prosperity, please forgive any misspelling and lack of propper puncuation. my name is Billy Russell signing off

Comment from Billy Russell, (3/23/2013, 6:33 AM)

Shane, YES 3rd party inspection firms Do play games with contractors,for Billing hours, for obvious reasons I can not be spacefic and single those companies or inspectors out on this public forum, as I stated to you on the phone, somebody has to put the "TRUTH" on the table, I strongly believe that this SSPC QP program is Nothing but a checkbook certification, including QP5 that has mislead alot of owners into thinking they were getting contractors held to a higher standard, and that simply is not what is taking place, owners should disregard this QP sales pitch DOT's should not rely on that program to produce a quality job, the old fassion word of mouth and referances will weed out the outlaws the QP program produced. Making the projects out for Bid requiring QP certification did nothing for the quality of work performed, lowerd the standards of containment systems built, and put alot of small speciality contractors that Built first class 1A containments, had pride and craftsmanship in thier names and reputations while performing theses contracts out of our industry, the inspectors were guys with many years of experiance in the field, now these QP5 inspection firms are putting people on these projects that have never seen a lead abatement project have NO lead worker traing annual certification, No pre/post Blood lead level monitoring, they tell the owners they dont have to have it, when infact yes you do, on a federally funded lead abatement project, if you go in that containment you are required to have it period ! These QP5 inspection firms want these DOT contracts to observe document and report, but wont stand behind any aspect of the project, use terms in there reports like "Area observed appeared to meet the specification" always leaving themselves a slick willie way out of accountability. "Put your name on it or shut up" My name is Billy Russell and I approve this post. "coating failures are not an option"

Comment from Anna Jolly, (3/26/2013, 8:09 AM)

I expected all this commentary to be about OSHA because you use the OSHA definition of competent person. I don't know about those other groups but under the OSHA standard, the employer determines wheither the employee/supervisor is a competent person. Yes, these folks need to have adequate training that covers all the required OSHA topics, but if your training provider tells you that he or she is now a competent person based solely on that training they are misinformed. The employer must give them the authority to do the job or competent person. A class does not make them competent. The employer must make an effort to insure that they are in fact competent. It is no excuse for the employer that someone has revieved competent person training, but is still incompetent. The employer should have known that from his relationship with the employee.

Comment from Henry Wong, (9/26/2013, 6:02 AM)

Certification should not merely protect against liability but be backed by reputation and exposure of the certifier.

Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (9/27/2013, 9:39 AM)

Experience and Certification are very important in coating business. Its like to debate which comes first egg or chicken. To me we must combine this two for the benefit of this industry.

Comment from peter gibson, (8/29/2014, 11:47 AM)

There are hacks in every industry. A certificate/Board Certified(plastic surgeons ) does not denote competence. Society is hoodwinked by such documents. It is a false sense of security about competence. Pervasive in this society.

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