What makes an EHS specialist qualified and competent? Most employees would agree that training is an essential part of becoming a skilled EHS specialist. In the EH&S world, there are many disciplines that require training, such as the shipping of hazardous materials and the management of hazardous waste. The training is required so that employees tasked with those functions are presented with, and provided an explanation of, specific regulatory requirements which they must meet. But the question becomes, is training enough?
When it comes time to put the knowledge acquired during training to use, can the employee perform the task compliantly? Even further, does the employee continue to be competent if considerable time elapses between tasks or is given new and more challenging tasks? If I'm an employer, I need to know- if I don't, I risk penalties, financial, civil or criminal liability, the reputation of my company or institution, even peoples' lives could be at stake.
It's no secret that employers do not always make an effort to determine if employees are qualified and competent to perform EH&S tasks, usually because they don't see the consequences. . . .right away, that is. (We've heard it- "he's got the certificate, he's good to go"). Concern about competency commonly arises only after a shipment is rejected, a regulatory inspection occurs, a citation is issued, an incident occurs, the environment is contaminated, or a person is injured or killed. It may take considerable time and practice to establish proficiency at mastering the minutiae of a set of regulations to be confident that what he/she is doing is accurate and compliant.
Nowhere in the EH&S world is it more crucial for an employer to determine competency after training, than when offering hazardous materials for transport by aircraft. ValuJet Flight 592 which crashed in the Everglades in 1996- an avoidable tragedy caused by the improper loading of hazardous material, is a stark example. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsible for enforcement, knows this all too well. In the last 6-7 years enforcement has been vigorous. Enforcement actions against employers have resulted from discovery of non-compliant shipments at air terminals, incidents, and what's becoming ever more frequent, from unannounced inspections of employers triggered merely by offering hazardous materials by air. FAA is very concerned with the qualifications and competence of employees tasked with preparing shipments. One FAA inspector recently, during an onsite inspection, required the employer to assess the competency of each hazmat employee and certify that those previously-trained individuals were qualified, even suggesting an additional employer's signature be added to the original training certificate already signed by the instructor.
So, the lesson to be learned here is, employers should look at EH&S tasks carefully, assess the risks associated with non-compliance, and not only train those employees, but follow-up and have another person with the training, knowledge and experience assess their competency through evaluation of actual job duties. . . only then should they be qualified.