Don’t Rely on the Buddy System to Keep Your Lone Workers Safe

The buddy system is a safety procedure where one person in the team is responsible for monitoring the safety of another team member. 

Often, you would have two individuals who operate as “buddies” who look out for each other. Buddy systems can also have more than two people, where one person is in charge to look out for the rest of their team.

A buddy system can be applied in many situations. For instance, pairing a new employee with a more experienced buddy to learn about health and safety risks and procedures during their induction period. Teams working in hazardous environments, such as mining, can also use the buddy system to look out for each other.

While the buddy system is an effective safety procedure when monitoring team members in person, it is not as effective as you might think for monitoring lone workers remotely.

This article explains why you shouldn’t rely on buddy systems to protect your lone workers and how you can leverage technology to keep your lone workers safe in a more comprehensive manner.

What is a Lone Worker?

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines a lone worker as “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision”. 

Working alone does not mean that the employee is not part of a team, nor does it mean that they are not around anyone else. It simply means that their team members are not within sight or hearing range. 

For example, a shopping mall security guard surrounded by members of the public but does not have any colleagues on the same floor is considered a lone worker. 

How Employers Should Protect Lone Workers

Every employer is responsible for their lone worker's safety and must take reasonable steps to protect them from the hazards they face

According to HSE’s lone worker safety guidelines, employers must maintain regular contact with lone working employees. Lone workers must also have a way they can call for help when they need it. 

While most employers in the UK adhere to this, our research revealed that a significant amount of employers do not meet these requirements.

In a recent market study that Vatix conducted, “The State of UK Workplace Safety 2021”, 23% of those who engage lone workers do not use a standardised approach or any solution to monitor their lone workers. 

Those who do use a system to monitor their lone workers favour buddy systems. 40% of our survey respondents say they use an informal buddy system to monitor their lone workers. 

The Popularity of Using a Buddy System for Lone Workers

A buddy system remains popular as it is a low-cost legacy system that many employees are used to. At a very basic level, they do provide lone workers with some level of protection. 

Regular check-ins maintain contact with lone workers. If a lone worker needs to call for help in an emergency, they can call their buddy who is on duty to come to their aid or call for emergency help. 

One of the most significant advantages of buddy systems is that they utilise an employee’s personal mobile phone or a company-issued one, which means employers don’t need to invest in additional equipment. 

There will also be very low resistance since most people already use mobile phones in their daily life.

So, if buddy systems are easy to implement and cost-efficient, why do we advise against relying on buddy systems to protect your lone workers? It’s because buddy systems have four major shortcomings when it comes to monitoring lone workers remotely.

The Pitfalls of a Buddy System for Lone Workers

In some situations, lone workers can call their buddy to report a hazard or request help. However, four particular situations will make it difficult—if not impossible—for lone workers to reach out to their buddies. 

  1. Hazards that leave lone workers unconscious.
    Lone workers who work with hazardous materials or heavy machinery, work from height, or work in hazardous environments will be most vulnerable to incidents that leave them unconscious.

    However, it’s not just lone workers with high-risk jobs that face the dangers of falling unconscious. Medical conditions and natural disasters can also lead to situations where lone workers become unconscious.

    When unconscious, a lone worker can’t tell their buddy that an incident has happened. The assigned buddy will only know something is amiss when the lone worker misses their next check-in.

    This puts the lone worker in more danger because it results in a loss of time for first responders to come to the lone worker’s aid. A study has shown that slower response times are related to higher mortality rates in rural and urban areas alike.
  1. Accidents or natural disasters that leave lone workers immobile.
    A lone worker also can’t use their phones to call their buddy for help if an accident leaves them immobile, which means they have to wait for a missed check-in before their buddy knows something has happened to them.

    If a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, has left a lone worker pinned under rubble and immobile, they won’t be able to tell their buddy exactly where they are or what their condition is. This can also delay how quickly the worker can receive emergency help from first responders. 
  1. Acts of violence that hamper communication.
    Buddy systems rely on mobile phones, which require dialling a number or texting. This is difficult to do when a lone worker is face-to-face with an assailant, especially if the lone worker is panicking. It may even be unsafe, since calling for help can further aggravate the assailant. 

    This, again, leaves missed check-ins as the only way for a buddy to know that the lone worker is in danger.
  1. Lone workers are out of mobile signal range.
    Lone workers who work in remote locations such as in forests, mines, offshore, or drivers who travel long distances are more likely to find themselves in areas with low mobile signal range.

    The danger of relying on buddy systems in low-signal environments are two-fold. First, it can mean the lone worker cannot call or message their buddy during an emergency. This leaves them highly vulnerable.

    Second, it increases the chances of raising a false alarm. A lone worker may miss checking in with their buddy not because they are in danger but simply because they don’t have the mobile signal to get through. This can raise a costly escalation procedure that was not necessary. 

The Advantages of Lone Worker Safety Solutions

Lone worker safety solutions, such as Safe Pro, overcome these top four pitfalls of buddy systems for monitoring lone workers. 

  1. Reduce the time to respond to accidents.
    Lone worker safety devices equipped with fall detection will send out an immediate alarm to the response team whenever it detects a fall. This means that emergency help can be sent right away, even if the lone worker cannot call for help because the incident left them unconscious or immobile.
  1. You can raise a discreet alarm during acts of violence.
    One of the biggest advantages of a lone working device or app is the one-push SOS button that sends out a discreet alarm. This feature is handy during acts of violence when a lone worker most likely can’t use their phone to call for help.

  2. The system provides critical contextual information in an emergency.
    A lone worker device or app can tell you if an alert was a fall or an SOS button push. It can also give you an exact GPS location, so the response team is not searching blindly to reach the lone worker. This contextual information can significantly reduce the response time.
  1. Lone working devices are designed for low signal areas.
    Lone working devices that leverage a multi-network SIM card are ideal for lone workers who work in low signal environments. These devices can connect to more than one of the main UK mobile networks, switching to the one that gives the best coverage at any point in time.

Upgrade How You Monitor Your Lone Workers’ Safety

In summary, while buddy systems have many advantages and applications as a workplace safety system, they are not the most suitable system for monitoring lone worker safety.

To learn more about how you can improve the way you protect lone workers and other vulnerable employees, download a free copy of our Ultimate Guide to Lone Working Safety. You can also contact us for a free demo of Protector, the only employee-led software with integrated lone worker safety solutions and digital incident reporting.

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