Circle Opinion

How competency management can underpin your workforce safety efforts

Andrew Symonds

Competency management may sound like a basic construct in the world of safety-critical work. Employees are hired, they prove that they are appropriately trained and qualified for their role and off you go. Being qualified and competent at the commencement of a role is only one aspect of competency management; a robust framework is required to ensure that all staff receive ongoing support, assessments, training and guidance for their tasks. Complying with safety protocols depends upon it.

Understanding your workforce

Having a central record and database of your workforce enables you to keep track of who is competent at what. In times of strain, for example where there might be a number of absentees at short notice (something we’ve seen regularly during the Covid pandemic with people having to self-isolate), it is crucial that you can be nimble in assigning tasks across your workforce to keep services running and projects on track.

A single view of competencies required for tasks and competencies across your workforce facilitates flexible decision making. Staff can be reassigned across your organisation, safe in the knowledge that they are appropriately skilled and competent for the task at hand, whilst remaining compliant with health and safety regulations applicable to the organisation. An easily accessible record of hours staff have worked, for example, must be maintained. Fatigue is a major cause of accidents in the rail sector and can affect staff competencies to perform their tasks. Jobs should not be allocated to staff when they have not had the required amount of rest or they will exceed a safe number of hours to work.

Central record keeping is also useful for identifying skills gaps. Where such gaps are identified, this can trigger a workflow regarding training of staff in your existing workforce and can be linked to your organisation’s recruitment efforts. This further helps to ensure that your workforce has adequate competencies to fulfil the tasks across your organisation.

Safety first

In safety critical environments, competency management can be particularly important in order to comply with safety regulations. It is vital that your workforce is regularly assessed and observed, and that where ongoing training for a role is required, it is delivered, attended and passed.

For example first aider certificates last for three years, although the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommend that refresher training is conducted annually. Most working environments require the presence of trained first aiders, so it is important that administrators ensure that there are sufficiently competent personnel to perform the role.

In more safety intensive environments, for example trackside work on the rail network, it is vital that all members of the workforce receive appropriate safety training and briefings to understand their equipment and environment on an ongoing basis.

Ensuring that safety briefings are delivered is crucial and then, when incidents do occur, so is the recording of them, including near misses. With a log of all activities, from briefings to incidents, it makes it much easier to gain a full view of workforce safety and to understand why incidents have occurred. This can then trigger follow-up activities such as observations, assessments and the implementation of remedial training where necessary.

Upskilling your workforce’s competencies

Having a central log of information also makes life easier for your workforce to understand their training and assessment obligations, whilst also opening up and suggesting new training opportunities to them. This helps them with their career development and helps you with broadening the competencies available to you across your organisation.

Ongoing training is a prerequisite in some roles, so using a supporting competency management software tool can help you with auto-allocation of mandatory courses and sending notifications to staff members of training opportunities relevant to them.

Where potential skills gaps are identified, you can recommend relevant courses to your workforce to encourage them to broaden their competencies, making your workforce more flexible and agile in the face of unforeseen shortfalls in staff numbers. This feeds directly into responding to short-term incidents such as self-isolation arising from Covid by equipping you with the knowledge of your workforce that facilitates quick fixes where they are necessary.

A bird’s eye view

With all competencies across your workforce logged, it is much easier to allocate relevant tasks to people in a timely and even automated fashion. A bird’s eye view of your entire workforce makes decision making much easier.

The deployment of the correct technology is crucial to this. Moving away from manually intensive processes such as spreadsheets and phone calls, to having all the relevant information made available to the relevant decision makers in an automated fashion creates great efficiencies in your competency management processes, making it simple to understand who is competent at what.

This carries over benefits to your scheduling, training and, crucially, safety protocols. It’s one thing having appropriately competent staff members when they join your organisation, but updating and upskilling their core competencies keeps your entire organisation on track in a more harmonious manner.

Having a central log of all activities and incidents also makes it much easier to schedule the necessary assessments and observations of your workforce. This central log also makes it easier to identify trends and understand why incidents occur.

Ultimately, keeping your workforce appropriately trained and competent for the tasks which they are assigned to undertake carries huge benefits to your safety efforts. If staff are being assigned to tasks for which they are not appropriately competent, accidents are more likely to occur. Having a clear evidence base and bird’s eye view of your entire workforce helps to comply with safety protocols and keep your projects moving.

For a more detailed look at improving workforce safety across the UK’s rail network, please take a look at our free white paper on the topic.

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Andrew Symonds