The buddy system is widely regarded as a best practice for employees working in isolated areas or performing jobs that have a high degree of risk. The buddy system is effective but highly inefficient operationally. When a pair of employees are dispatched to perform a high-risk job only one person is supposed to work on the given task, the other person is supposed to watch and come to their rescue if an incident occurs.
The buddy system is most common for employees working in remote or isolated areas, working with energized equipment, from heights, and other activities considered to be high risk. The buddy system can provide invaluable experience for new employees to shadow and learn from observation, it can reduce the feeling of isolation, and improve problem-solving skills for both employees. However, from a safety perspective, the buddy system presents a few areas of vulnerability.
Let’s get this one out of the way for all the budget-conscious operations managers; the buddy system is expensive. As mentioned above, when two workers are deployed only one is supposed to be working – the other is meant to watch and respond to incidents. That means companies are incurring twice the labour cost associated with buddy-system tasks.
One Telco manager argues that the buddy system is actually cheaper in the long run as incidents are reduced dramatically. The monetary cost of a workplace accident or death aside, the morale boost from working alongside fellow employees and having each other's back can prove to be invaluable.
We must, however, acknowledge that the buddy system is very expensive upfront and can be cost-prohibitive for some organizations, especially as labour shortages put pressure on companies to complete all contracted work with a limited number of employees.
What endangers one endangers the other
One flaw of the buddy system is that both employees are facing the same conditions and risks. If one person is facing severe weather and extreme temperatures, so is the other. If one person is at risk of twisting an ankle climbing through rough terrain, so is the other. If one person is at risk of physical attack, so is the other. The list goes on and on. Perhaps the saddest example of this can be found with gas in confined spaces. The reaction of the designated buddy plays an important role.
Reactions and panic
Panic is a powerful force. Often, in stressful or new situations we act before we think. The scenario below is a sad reality of what panic-induced reactions look like.
A worker enters a confined space and loses consciousness due to a chemical or gas exposure. The second person on the job desperately wants to help their co-worker and in a moment of panic, they enter the confined space to assist. The same chemical that caused the first employee to lose consciousness claims the second employee and now both are unconscious, unaccounted for, and unable to call for help.
This is human nature; we want to help when we can, and our first instinct isn’t to stay away – it's to run and help. We don’t want panic or confusion to enter the conversation during an emergency. Every second counts during an emergency and if employees don’t act fast, decisively, and contact the correct emergency services it could mean life or death. Let’s talk more about human nature.
What, am I just going to watch?
You might not admit it at the toolbox talk, but you’ve probably been guilty of this one. When you’re the designated “watcher” on a job it can be tempting to help your teammate out.
- We'll get it done twice as fast
- I can't just sit and watch you work
- I'm bored to tears
- Just this one thing
- it's not a big deal
It’s in our nature to want to be efficient, to be helpful, and get the job done quicker. All to the demise of the buddy system. No need to belabour the point, we know it happens. We understand the consequences.
Alternatives and supplements
3rd party monitoring and personal safety devices give your organization a buddy that doesn’t panic when incidents occur, isn’t tempted to help you finish the job quicker, and has direct PSAP access to all 911 operators in North America.
3rd party monitoring is often used to replace the buddy system, but with an array of personal connected technology available today it also provides a great supplement for small teams or pairs of employees. Using personal safety devices combined with live 24/7 monitoring ensures employees are never truly alone. Smartphone apps and satellite devices are the two most popular forms of personal connected technology, but wearable options are available as well. The most popular features include:
- Man down/fall detection
- No motion detection
- Gas detection
- Checki-in timer + two-way communication
- Panic latch / SOS button
You can work with the 24/7 monitoring provider to establish custom escalation procedures for handling any sort of incident your team may encounter. Learn more about the benefits of 24/7 live monitoring here.
The buddy system is great for companies that can get the backing from executives to incur the upfront cost but even then, human nature, panic, and common threats present flaws in the system. Utilizing 24/7 live safety monitoring can enable two-way communication between pairs of employees and a professional emergency dispatch. For organizations that cannot implement the buddy system due to cost constraints, 24/7 live monitoring is an essential alternative.