Working In Pairs: The Buddy System
Batman had Robin, the Lone Ranger had Tonto, Captain America had Bucky, and Starsky had Hutch; the list goes on of dynamic duos who achieved a lot working together. There is a lot to be learned from those who work in teams to achieve their goals. Working with a partner is good for many different reasons, and safety happens to be a very important one. If safety is a part of your goals, working in pairs may be a way to help you achieve it. Let’s focus on the buddy system and how it can help improve safety on the job.
What Is the Buddy System?
As per Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the phrase “buddy system” goes as far back as 1942. Webster goes on to define the buddy system as “an arrangement in which two individuals are paired (as for mutual safety in a hazardous situation).” The term buddy system is also defined by OSHA in 29-CFR 1910, “Occupational Safety and Health Standards” and in 29-CFR 1926, “Safety and Health Regulations for Construction” as “a system of organizing employees into work groups in such a manner that each employee of the work group is designated to be observed by at least one other employee in the work group. The purpose of the buddy system is to provide rapid assistance to employees in the event of an emergency.” The buddy system is important for many different reasons from providing an extra set of eyes on the job spotting safety issues to alerting and providing immediate medical attention should an event occur.
The buddy system is basically working in pairs or in larger groups, together, on a project specifically for the purpose of ensuring safety. Effective implementation of this system is not two individuals working on a project at the same time. Effective implementation is one person conducting the work while the other observes and quite possibly assists. Both individuals have a job to do, and one of those jobs is to ensure work is completed safely.
When to Use the Buddy System
It would be foolish to suggest that every menial task needs to be done with a buddy. The hard part is determining what work should be done in this manner. As always, erring on the side of caution is beneficial, but it never hurts to understand what, if any, requirements are out there that you must follow. This article is not going tell you what the law is and is not meant to be a guide to meet requirements of any laws. This dialog is meant to help you understand where it can be used and how others are using it so that you can decide how to implement in your organization. You should always be well aware of what laws require but note that you can go above and beyond. This may be an area where you can go above and beyond for safety sake.
OSHA provides guidance on when you need to work in pairs as part of OSHA 29-CFR 1910.269 (l)(1)(i), which provides the following list of types of work that must have at least two employees present when being performed:
- Installation, removal, or repair of lines that are energized at more than 600 volts.
- Installation, removal, or repair of de-energized lines if an employee is exposed to contact with other parts energized at more than 600 volts.
- Installation, removal, or repair of equipment, such as transformers, capacitors, and regulators, if an employee is exposed to contact with parts energized at more than 600 volts.
- Work involving the use of mechanical equipment, other than insulated aerial lifts, near parts energized at more than 600 volts.
- Other work that exposes an employee to electrical hazards greater than or equal to those posed by operations that are specifically listed here.
The above does not apply to the following operations as per OSHA 1910 requirements:
- Routine switching of circuits, if the employer can demonstrate that conditions at the site allow this work to be performed safely.
- Work performed with live-line tools if the employee is positioned so that he or she is neither within reach of nor otherwise exposed to contact with energized parts.
- Emergency repairs to the extent necessary to safeguard the general public.
OSHA also notes as part of 1910.120, which is in subpart H entitled “Hazardous Materials,” that a site control program for protecting employees be developed during the planning stages of hazardous waste clean-up. The expectation here is that this site control program is part of the employer’s site safety and health program. One of the elements of the site control program is the use of the buddy system.
In the examples above we have identified that a voltage level can be an indicator of when to work in pairs as well as the type of work being performed. Other areas to leverage this system include tight spaces and any energized work. Some say that you only need a work companion when you are working on energized equipment. I would say you need to leverage the safety aspects of working in pairs on more than just energized work.
Another example is working in cold weather. This is the time of year that our climate is changing in many locations to much colder work conditions. Working conditions could lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries. When working in pairs, each person should be looking for symptoms in the other of cold-induced illnesses and/or injuries. When working alone we may have the tendency to not take those short breaks in warm dry shelters to give our bodies time to warm up. Exhaustion and/or fatigue can set in because our energy is being expended to keep our muscles warm. Working in pairs can be quite helpful in many ways, and working in the cold is yet another example.
Take into consideration too that workers face increased risks when they take certain medications, are in poor physical condition, or suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease. I would suggest that your buddy be trained in basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). It would be best if both individuals working together have the same level of training. Even low voltages can be fatal. It doesn’t take 600 volts or more to kill a person.
I would challenge you and your safety team to create a list of examples where the buddy system can help you work safer. Work this system into your safety plan and educate your employees on how to effectively make use of it. Your workers need their wing-man; they need that person or persons providing the extra set of eyes, ears, and more for safety’s sake. When you go on to your next job, who is going to be your Robin; who is your Tonto that has your back for safety?
As always, keep safety at the top of your list and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.
Thomas Domitrovich, P.E., is a National Application Engineer with IEC Platinum Partner Eaton Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has more than 20 years of experience as an Electrical Engineer and is a LEED Accredited Professional. Domitrovich is active in various trade organizations on various levels with IEC, International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). He is involved with and chairs various committees for NEMA and IEEE and is an alternate member on NFPA 73. He is very active in the state-by-state adoption process of NFPA 70, working closely with review committees and other key organizations in this effort.