Qualified, Certified or Professional?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / May 1, 2008

Federal OSHA, as well as the American National Standards Institute, ANSI, has definitions for competent and qualified, particularly as it pertains to scaffolding.  To paraphrase the definition, a competent person is an individual who can recognize a hazard and has the authority to eliminate that hazard.  Furthermore, a competent person is familiar with the OSHA standards regarding scaffolding.  A qualified person, again to paraphrase the definition, is an individual, who by education, training, knowledge, or experience, can demonstrate an ability to solve a problem (in other words, a qualified person is a person who knows what he/she is talking about).   While a competent person is required to inspect the scaffold (identify the hazard), a qualified person is required, not only to design the scaffold, but also to find a solution to the hazard identified by the competent person.  A Professional Engineer is not necessarily required unless the solution can only be done by an individual with the pertinent Professional Engineering knowledge and expertise.

Who determines whether a person is competent or qualified?   For a competent person, it is the employer who determines if an employee is a competent person since it is only the employer who can give the employee the authority.  Of course, it is the employer’s responsibility to determine if the employee can identify a scaffold hazard; this means the employer must be competent – which might be a wrong assumption!

A qualified person obtains his or her qualifications through education, training and experience.  That’s right; we recognize that experience can be a great teacher provided we learn from the experience.  Some do better than others in this area.  Formal education, seminars, on the job training and mentoring also contribute to the level of expertise that develops in each individual over his or her career.  But here is a question to answer:  Who determines who is qualified?  Is it the employer or is it a compliance officer?  OSHA, in the definition, says that the qualified person can “demonstrate an ability to solve or resolve the problem.”  But how do we know the ability if we are not qualified to evaluate that ability?  One way is to ask for verification from the qualified person that indeed he/she is knowledgeable.  This can be through a certificate or diploma.  For example, a certified welder holds a certificate that indicates the welder’s training and abilities.  But suppose the certificate is a fake.  Now what?  What about a scaffold erector who holds a certificate in scaffold erection.  If the individual indicates a propensity for consistently constructing lousy scaffolds, it would be wise to investigate the source of the certificate and determine the qualifications of the certificate giver.  Are there any safeguards against fraud?  The best bet is to accept certificates from only recognized agencies.

This brings us to Professional Engineers.  What is the magic of utilizing the expertise of a Professional Engineer?  None.  What about a qualified engineer—is this the same?  No.  A Professional Engineer’s credentials are your assurance that the individual has the qualifications to solve the problem at hand.  An engineer cannot be called an engineer without the proper education and testing to verify knowledge.  Each state in theUnited Statesand each province inCanadahave Boards of Registration that verify the legitimacy of Professional Engineers.  An engineer, while he or she may hold a degree from a university, cannot be called a Professional Engineer without further training under the supervision of a licensed engineer and successfully passing licensing tests. Provinces and states also require continuing education on an annual basis to ensure an engineer’s expertise.  A Professional Engineering Seal on a scaffold design is your indication that the design was conducted according to accepted engineering standards and that the design is safe.  (This doesn’t necessarily mean the scaffold is safe since it is the “competent person, qualified in scaffold erection” who must make sure the scaffold is constructed according to the design.)

Some people think the seal is provided to help spread the liability.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The laws and Code of Ethics for Professional Engineers require that Professional Engineers only practice in their areas of expertise.  This means that the engineer involved with scaffold design shall be qualified and have expertise in scaffold design.  License suspension and revocation are the remedies for engineers who do not adhere to these and other high standards of the profession.  Related to this are people who fraudulently hold themselves out as Professional Engineers; fines and imprisonment await these pretenders.  Finally, what is the difference between a qualified engineer and a Professional Engineer?  None, except that the Professional Engineer has a license to practice engineering.  Other facts that should be understood include the fact that if you are not an engineer you cannot legally say you are “engineering a design,” nor can you say you have an engineering department unless you have a Professional Engineer on staff.  An engineered scaffold layout is exactly that:  a layout completed by a Qualified Professional Engineer.

Scaffolding is a serious business.  That’s why we look to competent and qualified individuals, including Professional Engineers, to design and inspect scaffolds.

Tags: Scaffolding American National Standards Institute OSHA OSHA Standards & Regulations Professional Engineers Resources

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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