From roofs to basements to cars, inspectors work to protect their personal safety
The work of inspecting homes is not simply a matter of looking, testing and reporting as it might appear to clients. Each home is unique, in both its flaws and its hazards, and every inspector must protect his or her personal health. We spoke with inspectors in each of five regions to learn what concerns they face day to day — and the unexpected issues that can surprise (and hurt) them if precautions aren’t taken.
The most common issues are related to roofs, correct ladder use and safety, electrical hazards, crawl spaces and attics — probably what you would expect to hear. But some inspectors offered fresh perspectives on these commonplace issues and some others that may surprise you.
A common thread connecting all inspectors is the need to follow your instinct. Says Charlie Rouse of Associated Master Inspectors, LLC, in Tigard, Ore. (a suburb of Portland): “I don’t take chances. If you take chances with your health and safety, you’re not long for this world. If you’re a home inspector faced with a situation and are unsure, you shouldn’t take the chance. If I have a doubt, I don’t do it.” Rouse echoes the belief of many inspectors: In the back of your mind, you should not only be thinking about what you will report, but also about the potential hazards in each situation or space.
And while you’re at it, get off that cell phone if you’re driving. “Our biggest safety risk is driving to the job,” says Gregg Harwood of Professional Home Inspection Service in Binghamton, N.Y.
Keith Ruehl of US Inspect in Barnardsville, N.C., agrees, and his company instituted a no-phone driving policy — banning even hands-free sets. (University of Utah research shows there is no difference in the level of distraction between handheld and hands-free options.)
Pull-down attic stairs aren’t unique to the Northeast, but they are high on the list of concerns for the region. Bob Sisson of Inspections by Bob in Gaithersburg, Md., explains that they are frequently installed incorrectly, with a couple of drywall screws and a handful of finish nails instead of the required larger nails and lag bolts.
“Most of those stairs are rated for 250 pounds — think of your average plumber with his tool belt, tool box — it’s not safe,” he says. His approach: He puts his ladder on the attic ladder for stability.
Harwood says he’s very careful when entering any home: “There’s an inherent risk in entering a property, both from dogs, who have a job to do and do it quite well, and from the occupants.” (Inspectors in his area have access to lockboxes,
so they can perform inspections alone.)
He enters the house loudly and slowly and says “Home inspector, do not shoot” as he goes from room to room. He says he’s surprised people and pets, and for his protection he carries a baton-type Maglite flashlight and pepper spray, which is legal in his state.
Both Sisson and Paul Kristenson of Associated Building Services in Foxboro, Mass. say bees are common in the region. (Kristenson says he occasionally runs into snakes as well.) Sisson says, “Any time you have an outside box, a switch panel, an A/C box — anything larger than an outlet — tap it a couple times before you open it. If it buzzes, back away fast because it could be full or wasps or bees.”
Heat poses a potentially deadly threat in the Southeast. Ruehl says particularly in North Carolina and Florida, attics can get intensely hot. Attic pitches are usually low in the region, so inspectors are entering a space that is two to three feet high. “Attics get hot. I’ve personally measured them at 150 degrees F,” says Ruehl. It only takes a few minutes to overheat.
“Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are killers, and a lot of guys don’t realize that,” he cautions. To reduce the risk, measure the attic temperature before entering, and check to make sure it will be easy to exit if you start to feel overheated. Ruehl makes sure he drinks plenty of water.
Ladder safety is of concern across the country, and Charles Gifford of AmeriSpec of Northeast Florida, Inc. (in Jacksonville) says that no matter where you are, you can’t sacrifice safety. “Our industry is an ego-driven industry,” he says. Some inspectors think that “If I do it that way, then everybody else should be doing it,” he explains, “but we’re a self-employed industry, and if you fall off a ladder, there goes your livelihood.”
In the Gulf Coast area of the region, one of the biggest concerns today is safety in storm-ravaged neighborhoods. (For more on this, see the sidebar in the January issue: New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Post-Katrina: Growth, Safety and Quality.)
“My number one safety concern is my personal safety,” says Andrew Polmer of Louisiana Real Estate Inspection, Inc. in New Orleans. Polmer says out-of-town investors purchase properties in the city and he won’t inspect them unless they send someone to accompany him.
From the Midwest, we hear a variety of perspectives on roof safety. Ken Goewey of Accurate Inspections in Burnsville, Minn. (near Minneapolis-St. Paul), says he has changed his roof strategy recently to going slow and “keeping three points of contact, especially coming down.” Any time he’s walking a roof, he says, he stops to look at things instead of looking and walking at the same time.
Larry Crouch of Metro Property Inspections in Omaha, Neb., says he uses an articulating ladder that he can lay over the roof “that makes it easier to get on and off and if you slide, it makes it easier to grab on to — plus it’s a little more resistant to wind.”
Shane Pouch of Outlook Inspection Services, Inc. in Olathe, Kan., says it helps to have a game plan before getting on the roof, but still finds it odd that inspectors routinely walk roofs alone and untethered. “OSHA would fine you if they saw you on a roof without anything to tie you off,” he comments.
Pouch adds that it’s “crazy how we put ourselves so easily into confined spaces! I wear a breather and go in with some blind faith that spaces will be routine and relatively benign,” he says. But the same action on a commercial site would require an OSHA air inspection, a watchman at the access point and a tie-off “so if you pass out they can pull you out,” he says. His advice is to plan escape routes before entering a small space and if it’s hard to get in … don’t.
Roof and ladder safety are also on the minds of inspectors in the Northwest. Stan Audette of AAD Inspection Corp. in Boise, Idaho, says, “any wooden roof, if it has any water on it at all — frost, dew, anything — an inspector absolutely can-not walk on it.” In addition, he reminds us that walking on a freshly-watered lawn and then climbing on a roof wearing rubber soles will create a slip hazard.
Joanne MacKintosh of Centennial Home Inspection Services, Inc. in Woodinvale, Wash. (a suburb of Seattle), says with all the rain in her area, it’s sometimes hard to convince clients that a roof is not safe. In some conditions, she’ll move the ladder around a lot to see as much as possible, or reschedule another day for roof inspection. She sometimes brings a 30-foot ladder for bigger, older houses.
In the Northwest and some other areas, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is of great concern to inspectors and homeowners. The infection comes from contact with sick deer mice or their feces, and in some cases is lethal. Audette says it’s common to encounter infected nesting materials in crawl spaces, attics and barns, further raising the need for respirators.
Rouse says he also uses care when inspecting kitchens. He always runs a cycle on the dishwasher, and when he removes the motor cover — exposing a common place for rodent nests — he does it at arm’s length.
Hantavirus is also a concern in the Southwest, says Randy West of Professional Building Consultants in Prescott, Ariz. He says that the virus has caused “quite a few fatalities in New Mexico and Arizona.” He sees rodents, alive and dead, in almost every crawl space he enters, so the virus is on his mind every day.
But even more common are insects, arachnids and reptiles, says West. He wears coveralls and a flashlight on his head when entering crawlspaces, and says, “I see black widows in literally every crawl space.” On occasion, he runs into a brown recluse (more deadly than a black widow), scorpions (he heads the other way), snakes (he carries a snakebite kit in the car) and tarantulas (which aren’t poisonous, but there’s “nothing like a softball-sized spider jumping four feet in the air” to keep you on your toes, he says).
His general rule for handling creepy creatures? “If it has legs, I’ll go by it and if it slithers, I’m out of there.”
Garet Denise of Cornerstone Inspection, LLC of Littleton, Colo. (a suburb of Denver), also wears full protective gear when entering crawl spaces, including coveralls, a particulate dust mask, leather gloves and kneepads.
A final note: Attics and crawl spaces
Surprisingly, some inspectors still do not wear respirators when working in crawl spaces and attics. This poses a danger “that’s not immediate, but comes out in later years,” says Ruehl. “You really don’t know what you’re breathing in — doing it on a daily basis, and years down the road, you have some sort of pulmonary issue.”
Audette shares the same concern. “Not wearing it is like driving without a seatbelt,” he says. If customers react negatively to him gearing up, he reminds them that this is just part of his job.“It only takes a moment to put customers at ease. It you’re totally suited up for work, they respect that as part of your tools. It makes you look more professional.”
Ruehl’s company issues respirators to every inspector, and many inspectors agree, whether you’re part of a larger company or work independently, you should be wearing one, too.
Considering Client Safety
It’s not enough to think only of your own safety on an inspection. There are also plenty of ways for your clients to get hurt.
“Our clients can become very involved in the inspection process, and we need to look out for their safety in addition to our own,” says Gregg Harwood of Professional Home Inspection Service in Binghamton, N.Y. Here are just a few issues to think about if your clients (or their children) try to be “hands-on.”
Keep your eye on clients at all times while inspecting electrical boxes or other equipment.
“Two times over the last 10 years I have had to swat a client’s hand away as he tried to reach into an open electrical service panel to point something out to me,” says Harwood.
Remind clients that they don’t have to follow your every step.
“Clients may have health issues that show up during an inspection,” says Harwood. “The inspection process is physically strenuous. In order to be efficient, inspectors have to move right along, and some clients may push themselves too hard.”
Basement inspections can bring out clients’ mold allergies as well.
Be clear about your ladder rules, says Charles Gifford of AmeriSpec of Northeast Florida, Inc. (in Jacksonville).
Any time he climbs a ladder, he says to the client: “I’m going up this ladder, and make sure your child does not follow me, and you can’t follow me either.”
“Children pose their own special risks,” Harwood says. “A home inspection is no place for children.” He says kids are attracted to tools, which may be sharp, heavy or otherwise dangerous, and “they also like to mimic our actions, such as ‘testing’ electrical receptacles.”
Advise your clients to watch their children closely if they must bring them to the inspection.