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Three Points of Contact – or Control?

By Randy Logsdon

One of the tenets we use as a guide to directing personnel toward safe work performance is the phrase, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” It’s a concise way of expressing the concept that when giving direction it’s important to clearly state expectations – what is to be done; how, where, and when. (Say what you mean).

The second part addresses accountability. Was the task accomplished in compliance with the defined parameters? (Mean what you say). Compliance deserves positive recognition – as simple as a sincere thank you. Non-compliance requires some investigation (Why?) and appropriate corrective action. Imagine how many errors and mishaps could be prevented by just thoughtfully applying this axiom.

Giving Direction
Let’s return again to the concept of giving direction. We are inundated with instruction in the workplace whether it originates from statute, rule, established process or learned procedure. Occasionally, we learn that there’s a better way. We discover that the direction we’ve relied on is inadequate or even incorrect. While I can probably cite examples dating as far back as my early youth, I probably first became consciously aware of the importance of “Say what you mean” just a few years ago.

It was then when I realized that in an effort to empower individuals to stop and take corrective action when an unacceptable level of risk developed, employees were instructed to stop if they were not comfortable with conditions. Despite the best intentions, the instruction was just too ambiguous. “Comfortable” has a different meaning for each individual.

Further, in the process of determining this comfort level, one enters the realm of rationalization. It is too easy to find comfort rather that implement corrective action. While not a perfect solution, we began replacing the term “comfortable” with “confident.” Stop and take corrective action if you are not confident of your safety. The definition is still fuzzy, but it at least raised the bar.

Another Miscommunication
To my dismay, I just recently discovered that I was guilty of another prolonged and misguided miscommunication to hundreds, if not thousands of workers. This particular fact was brought to my attention by a fall prevention article in the November 2012 issue of Professional Safety. In an article submitted by J. Nigel Ellis entitled “Three-Point Control,” I learned that in the instruction I had adopted and repeated in countless training sessions was in error.

I had instructed new and seasoned mine employees to use “three points of contact” when ascending or descending ladders. Ellis points out that three points of contact is inadequate in that simple contact is ineffective in preventing falls. His premise that three points of control – not contact – is essential in preventing falls from ladders and other elevated positions.

In keeping with the title of the article, Mr. Ellis expands the concept to make three important points.

  • The first point is that simple contact is not enough. ­­The concept applies not only to ladders, but to all aspects of climbing. In many situations, personnel are instructed to keep a hand on a solid object as a measure of balance control. He cites the example of gaining access to the elevated portions of car carriers using one hand placed on a secure object such as a car’s fender to maintain stability while maneuvering along a narrow elevated walkway. The obvious deficiency is that should the individual actually lose balance, there is no actual handhold to prevent the fall.
  • His second point (one that I previously recognized and have taught) is that we have learned (probably from the moment we first began to walk) to move an arm and leg in unison when we move. Observe someone walking, running, or especially climbing, and you will see that as the subject advances a foot from one rung to another, there is a natural tendency to move an arm simultaneously. This is a natural movement that can be unlearned and replaced by consciously practicing moving each arm and leg independently when climbing. While awkward at first, with repetition, it can become almost second nature.
  • His third point addresses technique – the actual handgrip. Backed by grip strength research, Mr. Ellis reveals that grasping a horizontal object (ladder rung) provides a much stronger grip than the opposite option of grasping a vertical object (ladder rail). A horizontal grasp provides far superior grip strength and eliminates the potential of the grip (hand) sliding on a vertical support should a fall occur. Imagine trying to lift a bucket of water using the vertical portion of the handle rather than the horizontal portion.

In short, by assuring a firm horizontal (control) grip, should a loss of balance (slip) occur, a slip can be arrested and a fall prevented. He extends this concept to recommend the redesign of the extension above the top landing on fixed ladders to include horizontal grips or handles in adjacent to the extended vertical rails as well as adapted extensions on portable ladders that would provide a similar horizontal grip.

Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to correct the message. Control trumps Contact. So, from this point forward, let’s say what we mean – three points of control. Then, through training and observation of this improved procedure, let’s mean what we say. (At least when using ladders.)

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..