September 2014

As chief elected officer of the Society, ASSE's president promotes the advancement of the Society and the safety profession, and represents ASSE before members, other relevant professional societies and various governmental agencies. Professional Safety shares his latest thoughts on the Society, the profession and its practice.

Read past messages in the President's Message Archive.

President's Message - December 2004

Competence does not begin or end with certification. Competence is a moving target; it demands that you stay current on the body of knowledge and effectively apply related skills.

2004-2005 ASSE President Gene Barfield, CSP

Defining Professional Competence

Have you ever asked yourself these questions: “What is my competence level?” “Is it verified by testing or by my own belief that I can meet the challenges of my position?” Many years ago, I was subpoenaed to testify in court about a contract employee who was injured at a company worksite. I felt confident heading into court, believing that we had done everything possible to remove workplace hazards. I also believed myself to be a highly qualified and competent SH&E professional.

That feeling changed—drastically—in court that day. Throughout my testimony, his attorney bombarded me with questions of competence and levels of certifications in an effort to disprove that I knew my job. It was true that I didn’t have a safety degree, but I had completed many SH&E courses and had consistently pursued opportunities to increase my knowledge and application skills. I also regularly sought out current best practices from my peers. Based on these activities, my employer’s safety performance and my ability to address identified hazards, I felt I did my job well.

I left the courtroom portrayed by this attorney as—and feeling like—a person not qualified to practice safety. That day, I vowed to obtain my CSP designation in order to prove my competence, knowing that I would be tested against a set of recognized professional standards. I did obtain the CSP, but soon recognized that competence does not begin or end with certification. Competence is a moving target; it demands that you stay current on the body of knowledge and effectively apply related skills.

The definition of competence—what it specifically is and entails—was a main focus of a recent panel discussion with my counterparts from the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering and Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. Webster’s defines competence as “the state of being well-qualified; a specific range of skill, knowledge or ability; legally qualified to perform an act.” As our discussion continued, it became clear that each group’s definition contained many similar elements, as well as particular focus on the critical components of experience, certification and professional membership.

ASSE further defines an SH&E professional as one who by nature of academic preparation, work experience and accredited certification or licensing has mastered and applies a recognized body of knowledge to prevent injury, illness, property and environmental damage, while adhering to the code of professional conduct. Among ASSE’s three primary membership categories, professional membership requires any one of the following designations: P.E., CSP, CHMM, CIH, CHP, CPEA, CRSP and IOSH-RSP plus five years’ safety experience, or an accredited bachelor’s degree plus 10 years’ safety experience.

For some, this may pose a dilemma: “I am not certified nor do I have a degree and 10 years’ experience. Does that mean I am not competent to practice safety?” The answer, of course, is no. Many noncertified SH&E practitioners are fully competent in the practice of safety. In fact, many of my colleagues—people whose input I value greatly—are neither certified nor professional members of ASSE. Often, these individuals have core competencies in highly technical areas in which I am not highly qualified. Some have college degrees and the experience necessary to sit for the CSP exam, some have other certifications or other skill sets, knowledge and experience, yet no academic degree. When they ask, “Why should I be certified?” I share my personal experience, then encourage them to pursue those certifications for which they qualify. If this is a question you have asked yourself, I would also encourage you to read “Professional Certification,” an article by Paul Adams and colleagues, which begins on pg. 26 of this issue of Professional Safety.

I began by asking you whether you’ve assessed your competence level and how. Now ask yourself, “How can I take advantage of ASSE’s services and resources to increase my competence and skills?

Gene Barfield, CSP