April, 2011
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Home Inspection – Staying Safe Out There

PETER HAWLEY

Inspector Peter Hawley reminds us how important safety concerns are.

A few years ago in my hometown, I was surprised to learn that a home inspector friend of mine had died. It was shocking and surprising because he was a relatively young man and still in good health. When I asked the cause of his death, I was expecting the answer to be a car accident or an unexpected and sudden health issue. Imagine my amazement when I was told he died on the job as a home inspector.

This particular incident motivated me to be more careful and to examine the practices and routines that I had settled into so comfortably. I learned that one of the factors in my friend's death was preventable. He had gone to a vacant home to do an inspection where the agent and client were not present, and nobody knew where he was. Nobody knew what time he was going to be there. Nobody knew what time he was expected to be finished. The specifics of his accident and the additional steps taken by his employer to safeguard other inspectors are outlined in the information provided by the ASHI Technical Review Committee.

But the lesson I took to heart was to always make sure someone knows where you are and what time you will return. After the death of my friend, his company adopted a call-before and -after policy. Even better than having someone know where you are is having someone with you. This can be the agent or client, the seller or I've even asked my spouse to wait in the car. Also, make sure you answer your phone when being checked on. This is one example of how a simple safety measure might save your life.

 I know some people think that this is taking safety to an extreme, but a death like this makes you realize that what is considered a mostly safe job can pose serious risks and that to stay safe, certain procedures must be observed. We are always in unfamiliar environments and sometimes that environment is hostile, particularly when the seller learns you are not there for his benefit or if we are expected to enter a place where our safety is in question.

What is "safe?"


I live and work in a state that provides licensing and guidelines for home inspectors (Nevada). This is a wonderful thing even though I cringe each time I have to renew my license. The guidelines clearly state what is considered dangerous, and we are not required to put ourselves into dangerous situations. The state's licensing codes make it clear that the final decision as to whether or not something is dangerous is the inspector's. This statement allows discretion by the inspector on-site, based on each individual situation. A basic rule for safety is: Never place yourself in any situation that will compromise your ability to continue working at the same level you currently are.

Hook and ladder

As home inspectors, we constantly are on ladders: Do you inspect your ladder on a regular basis? Most of us make sure the ladder functions correctly when we buy it, but how many of us regularly check to make sure all the parts are still where they need to be and working correctly? How many of us make sure the ladder is rated for what we do and is considered stable? When you are climbing the ladder, do you make sure it is on solid ground and angled properly to support your weight without slipping?

It's electric

We also inspect electrical boxes with current that could easily kill or severely disable us. Many homeowners think they are electricians and modify the main electrical panel and wiring. These modifications add another unknown we are forced to deal with. A simple check for electricity in the metal casing will prevent a shocking surprise. This check should be done on any metal disconnect or panel before you touch it.

Another safeguard may be as simple as the screwdriver you use: Is it rated for electrical work? Yes, they are more expensive, but I promise you, they are well worth it. Are you ever in too much of a hurry to use gloves or to use a non-conductive stool to stand on when the there's a puddle below the electrical box? Having come from a family of electricians, I know shortcuts can have major consequences.

Crawl spaces

I know little critters are a favorite of all of us who have to enter crawl spaces (not!). I always save that task for last because I really don't enjoy it. Of all the places in a home, I think the crawl space has the most potential for injury. There are so many situations that can occur in a crawl space, you can be sure I am not going to be able to address them all. My favorite crawl space story deals with my own unpreparedness.
I entered a crawl space and was at the far end from the opening when the battery in my flashlight died. I did not have a backup and had to crawl in pitch-black darkness to where I thought the opening was. I was under that house for over an hour trying to get out. You can bet that now I carry a second light source at all times. In addition to the second light, proper attire also is essential: long-sleeved shirt, long pants, boots, possibly a jumpsuit and even some sort of head protection and a facemask.

Attic


Now we can address the other end of the home, the attic. Most of the same things that apply to a crawl space apply to an attic. And yes, even some sort of head protection should be worn: Remember all the nails that con-44 struction crews put in, but do not remove while they miss the truss member when installing roofing material?

Roof


How about the roof? How casual have you become because it is "just another roof"? I guess I should consider myself lucky because I have a fear of heights; therefore, I am very careful on all roofs. Again, we are in unfamiliar territory, this area is exposed to all elements of the weather and rarely checked.

Walk softly and carefully. Be aware of where the truss or framing members are and place most of your weight directly on them. If the roof is soft, proceed carefully, and don't walk where you feel it may not be able to support twice your full weight.

Other considerations: What is the pitch of the roof and is it safe for me to be on it? What is the weather? Is that aspect going to change the conditions enough to prevent me from doing my job safely? Can I obtain the same results from doing my inspections though binoculars or second-story windows and other vantage points at the roof's edge? If I get the same results, why endanger myself and my livelihood?

Booties, not socks

I always politely decline when asked to remove my shoes in a house, responding that it is against company policy. Why? Because I'm in unfamiliar territory. An inspector in my company stepped on a nail that was protruding from a floorboard and spent the rest of the day in a hospital emergency room going through the unpleasant task of getting a tetanus shot. If you carry booties in your toolbox, you stay safe and no one is upset at you for wearing dirty shoes in the home.

Garage

We find things in garages that don't belong in a house, such as the half-full gasoline can used to fill a lawnmower. Not only is gasoline explosive, but the fumes from gasoline also are explosive. In a former career, I saw the results of this firsthand when an entire garage was gutted (with two cars and two motorcycles inside) because a homeowner was using gasoline to clean automotive parts and decided he needed a cigarette.
Even though he was on the other side of the garage, near an open door, the gasoline still ignited. We never know what we will run into in a garage.

Be aware


There always will be a small element of the unknown in what we do and where we are expected to go and inspect. We climb over, move through, check behind and look under many things we take for granted. Remember the last time you opened a cabinet door and a rat/mouse/spider surprised you and you jumped back to avoid it? Gloves would have provided at least a small amount of protection if you had been attacked by that critter. In addition, if you simply had positioned yourself to be able to move quickly, if necessary, by taking notice of any objects in your immediate vicinity, you could have avoided the possibility of injuring yourself by striking something in the room when forced to move suddenly.

Safety "to do" List


Simply put, we need to be aware of our situation and act accordingly. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we are in unfamiliar territory when we are inspecting: We must be willing to explore, but must do so with the utmost care and safety. Safety is in the back of our minds, but rarely at the top of our "to do" list. So, I challenge you to make it a goal to re-evaluate your mind-set and thoughts at least once a month. Think about what has happened in the last month and make adjustments for any errors you may have made. Make a pact with yourself to never make that mistake again. Do your own research into any incident, no matter how minor, you hear about within the home inspection industry. Inspect and repair all your tools at least once a month.

Remember: This is your livelihood. Never do anything or go anywhere that will compromise your ability to provide for yourself and your family. If you follow that simple rule, odds are you will have a long, prosperous and safe career in the home inspection industry.

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Review Committee Shares Lessons Learned by Death:
Asks Greater Attention to Safety


The ASHI Technical Review Committee is an essential contributor to ASHI's publishing team. Based on some of the comments we received from committee members after they reviewed "Home Inspectors – Staying Safe Out There," you can look forward to reading more about staying safe while doing your inspections.

First, some important observations from one committee member who has special knowledge of the accident mentioned in the article, which took place in Las Vegas on the 4th of July weekend, 2004.

According to the committee member, the home inspector died the day after he was found. No one knows if he would have survived if he had been found sooner, but we do know he fell backwards through the attic hatch because his last photo was taken from just inside the attic entrance, before he fainted from the extreme high temperature in the attic. He was about to do something dangerous — enter a very hot attic without anyone there or aware that he was doing so. Even if he hadn't fallen, he could have passed out inside the attic and died there.

The inspector's employer is ex-military, highly organized and runs his company by the book. They held weekly safety meetings even before the accident. After this tragedy, the company adopted a policy whereby each inspector phones the office before entering an attic. If he does not phone back within 10 minutes, the office secretary calls 911.

Other committee members noted the absence from the article of head protection, facemasks and respirators, with one making the following pitch for more information on the dangers of inspecting homes:

I'm aware of six home inspectors who were killed on the job. Two fell from a roof, two were electrocuted and two died from complications of the Hanta Virus. About 15 years ago, NY Metro's president fell from a roof and was severely injured. Therefore, although the article is somewhat simplistic, anything that would awaken a home inspector to the dangers of a home inspection is worthwhile.

Safety on Our Mind: You Can Help


If you know of resources for information on the topics listed below or have had a personal experience that would be helpful to others, please contact me at sandyb@ashi.org.

• Ladder use
• Extreme heat/cold
• Facemasks/respirators
• Personal protection equipment
• Falls
• Electrical hazards
• Accident prevention
• Policies that protect
• Additional inspection-related safety issues


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A Small (far-from-comprehensive) List for Safety's Sake:

• Dress appropriately.
• Inspect all equipment regularly and replace anything that is defective.
• Make sure you have the proper tools to do your job right.
• Be conscious of your surroundings.
• Make sure someone knows where you are and for how long you expect to be there.
• Never enter any situation that you consider dangerous.
• Never allow anyone to coerce you to do something you are uncomfortable with. \

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A version of this article was previously published in WorkingRE.com, a magazine published by OREP.org, It appears here with permission and with approval of changes.