I’ve been following some discussions from one of the online forums regarding competency and it’s clear from the correspondence that the issue of competency is still very subjective. It made me think about “what is competency?” To me it’s a blend of knowledge and experience and just how well this knowledge and experience is applied to the task in-hand.
Some of the correspondence from the forum related to the definition of competency and the fact that the standards (IEC 61508 & IEC 61511) don’t define what competency means. Some people were arguing that the standard should spell out exactly what’s required, whereas others argued that a performance based standard should not spell this out. It’s up to the end users and/or manufacturers to determine the level of competency required to work on safety-related projects/systems. The IEC 61511 standards says that you need to be competent to work on particular phases of the safety lifecycle, which means, for example, that if you participate in a HAZOP/PHA, that you have experience relative and relevant to this activity.
One could argue that undertaking training is a means to maintain and assess (assuming there’s some examination and/or test) the person’s knowledge regarding a particular subject (phase) of the safety lifecycle. Others argue that having a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering demonstrates competency. Again, it comes down to how well you apply this knowledge. Experience teaches us what works and what doesn’t, which generally means we should learn from our successes and failures, to help improve the way we do things next time.
Here at exida, when I teach the Functional Safety Engineering I & II course, I always like to encourage the class participants to share their “war stories” of both good and bad experiences. I feel this helps in cementing the learning process, especially if there’s a good mix of experience regarding functional safety lifecycle tasks, in the class. The old adage of not being able to put “an old head on young shoulders” is very relevant.
Therefore, companies should maintain a competency matrix for their people, to help identify gaps in knowledge, which in turn helps identify and prioritize training needs. Programs such as exida’s Functional Safety Engineering I & II course definitely help improve knowledge regarding the fundamentals of safety and the phases of the safety lifecycle. Taking the Certified Functional Safety Expert (CFSE) or Certified Functional Safety Professional (CFSP) exams demonstrate the candidate’s ability to apply this knowledge to real-world examples and is a good test of their competency. However, experience is the key. By providing a “safety net” for younger, less experienced engineers, will help improve confidence and capability. Learning from their mistakes is the best way to improve competency. Some companies use simulators that provide a safe environment for learning and gaining knowledge, whilst enabling engineers to work on real-world systems.
The blend of knowledge and experience can come from undertaking the CFSE/P and from experience in working in a real-world process environment.