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Safety First and Last: The difference between knowledge and skill


December 3, 2019
By Jeff Thorne

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Having competent supervisors is great for business, and employers that define and manage competencies sends a powerful message to the whole organization regarding the importance of knowledge, skill, ability and the desire to perform. Unfortunately, many organizations do not have a system that allows supervisors to achieve and maintain these skills, or supervisor competency criteria is not defined at all.

There’s a difference between knowledge and skill. Knowledge is knowing what, when and how to do something. Skill can be defined as being able to perform the activity correctly. Competent supervisors must embody both. What employers must realize is that skills often require practice, measurement and feedback to develop into an ability. Knowledge and skill may come with experience, however, not all supervisor competencies are innate and not all competencies are learned over time. Here’s an example. Becoming an effective leader and communicator requires knowledge and skill, but it also requires desire and practice if they are to be integrated into a supervisor’s repertoire. If a supervisor is tasked with delivering communication sessions and this is not a current skill, it will not develop into an ability without appropriate training, practice and feedback.

Similarly, specific knowledge such as applicable regulatory requirements and standards would not be learned through on-the-job experience alone. Additional training in what and how legislation applies and what standards apply is most certainly required, as is the supervisors desire to improve and gain further knowledge. A little from bucket A, a little from bucket B.

Now let’s bring these ideas down to safety. When it comes to monitoring compliance to your health and safety program, supervisors must determine which aspects of the program apply in a given situation and which standards need to be adhered to. Supervisors should have a thorough understanding of the safety plans in use and the obligations and expectations outlined in them – that’s knowledge. Supervisors then must walk the talk and monitor activities, and to be able to recognize deviations from the plan and respond in a manner that will correct the behaviour – that’s a skill.

Supervisors must know the principles and practices of hazard identification, assessment and risk control. Then they have to develop the skill to identify hazards presented by various tasks and situations, routine and non-routine. Supervisors have to know how to conduct risk assessments and review completed risk assessments to build their knowledge of the hazards particular to your environment. Then they have to be able to control hazards by establishing control measures, communicating the controls and verifying the implementation of risk controls.

Supervisors have to know enough about standards and legislation to take reasonable steps to implement a compliance program. This is a provincial requirement that employers and supervisors share. It’s a basic relationship; the employer establishes the system that will ensure compliance to the greatest extent possible, then provides knowledge of it to the supervisor. The supervisor then uses their skills to fulfill the duties and responsibilities assigned to them.

When non-compliance is identified, supervisors must be able to document observations, address unacceptable risks and behaviours and document action taken to correct the behaviour. Workers need competency, too, and supervisors must verify that workers are competent to perform assigned tasks. This can be achieved through auditing prescribed training. Additionally, if a supervisor observes workers completing a task or operating machinery outside of established safety standards, a competent supervisor would stop the work activity and confirm worker competency.

Competency involves knowledge, skill and ability. Having competent supervisors isn’t just good safety management – it’s a great business strategy.


Jeff Thorne is the training manager at Occupational Safety Group.