Because home inspectors also face weather and time-expectation challenges, they might have a similar unofficial motto, hopefully without the gloom of night. Rain, snow, cold and heat present enough challenges to their personal safety.
Working alone and entering a new situation with each inspection, home inspectors routinely encounter hazards where one wrong step or hurried decision can lead to injury or possibly to illness. Because of the physical demands of the job, even a minor injury can mean no work and loss of income. Faced with the risk of pain and financial loss, the wise home inspector considers what can go wrong and thinks about the consequences if it does.
This is true in any season, but winter presents some unique hazards. In general, home inspectors in the north face the more extreme cold weather, but inspectors in other areas may have to cope with rain-slicked surfaces, sudden storms, high winds and even hypothermia.
Up on the rooftop
No surprise here: Roofs were high on the list when members were interviewed in 2008 for an ASHI Reporter article on safety issues.
When winter storms cover roofs with snow, it’s obvious they cannot be inspected, much less walked on. Equally dangerous, but less obvious, is a roof slick from frost or from rain. When these conditions are present, inspectors stay off the roof and document the conditions in their reports.
Given the widely documented risk of getting on a roof in any weather, some inspectors inspect them from the ground with binoculars or from a ladder, again documenting their methods in their reports.
Getting up there
In winter, inspecting from a ladder presents its own hazards. Ladder safety has been featured repeatedly in the ASHI Reporter, yet not once was the additional challenge of using one in winter mentioned.
Cold weather can create uneven surfaces due to an accumulation of ice and snow on the ground. Uneven ground is one of the worst places you can place a ladder because it creates the potential of the ladder tipping over when you’re climbing it. Another reason you do not want to place your ladder on top of snow or ice is the lack of friction between the ladder and the ground. Ice is slippery.
Ladder stability in wet or slippery conditions is a key consideration and can be greatly improved by a number of factors, such as making an informed initial choice of ladder, by ongoing maintenance and inspection of ladder feet, and through the use of stabilizers. Replacement feet are available in rubber, while a wide range of safety feet, ladder stoppers and ground spikes can provide additional support and help to secure the base.
In general, inspectors are aware when the ladder is set up for use, it must be placed on firm, level ground and without any type of slippery condition present at either the base or top support points.
And they know to wear clean, slip-resistant shoes.
Every day, home inspectors make decisions about their personal health and safety. Whether or not to climb that ladder or get on that roof are among the most important.
Yet, how easy it is to overlook a few wet leaves. Wet leaves are a threat whether on the roof, on shoes or the ground.
Safe on the ground?
Even solid ground presents its own perils when it’s wet or cold outside. Slips and falls often occur during entry or exit from vehicles — a reminder to be particularly careful and hold on to the vehicle for support.
The likelihood of taking a fall on a sidewalk or driveway increases proportionally with the amount of freezing rain and ice.
Joseph Chen, m.d., medical director of the Iowa Spine Research and Rehabilitation Center at UI Hospitals and Clinics, suggests, “Take shorter steps and try to plant your whole foot gently down instead of using the typical heel strike that we use when we’re walking or running.”
Dr. Ronald Grelsamer of New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center says, “Balance is key to walking on snow- and ice-covered walks and roads.” He offers the following suggestions:
“Move your feet slightly apart as you walk and bend your knees for better control.
“If the terrain is steep, turn sideways, bend your knees and then walk. Do not cross one foot over the other because that will push you off balance.
“Protect your dominant arm (right if you’re right-handed, left if you are left-handed). Since falls usually occur without warning, you have no time to plan. Make a habit of holding your coat lapel or carrying something in your dominant hand while walking. This leaves the other hand free if you respond instinctively to break your fall. If injury does occur, you at least have your dominant side intact during recovery.
“And if you do feel yourself falling, the best thing you can do is relax and let yourself roll into the fall. Your instinct is to brace your body, but that could mean a more severe injury.”
Biting cold replaces suffocating heat
Although there may be a greater danger of slipping and falling in winter, that’s a year-round hazard for home inspectors. Other hazards are seasonal. While, for now, the danger of suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke is past, hypothermia and frostbite become a concern.
Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold environmental temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), when the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, the result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.
People who remain outdoors for long periods are in danger of experiencing hypothermia. For home inspectors, unheated crawl spaces, attics and even homes add to the time spent in the cold weather.
Warning signs include the following:
- confusion/fumbling hands,
- memory loss/slurred speech,
Take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency — get medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
- Warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head and groin — using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do NOT give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Although not life-threatening, frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. It is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin — frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
- a white or grayish-yellow skin area,
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy,
If you detect symptoms of frostbite in yourself or others, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes — this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm — not hot — water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and a health care provider should evaluate frostbite.
Even when temperatures are only cool, the wind chill effect can increase the likelihood of problems. As the speed of the wind increases, it carries more heat away from the body. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely. For a Wind Chill Chart (shows the difference between air temperature and perceived temperature and amount of time until frostbite occurs), Wind Chill Calculator and information on the updated Wind Chill Temperature Index, see www.nws.noaa.gov/om/windchill.
Prepare for winter
It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.
Also, doing something as simple as dressing accordingly can reduce the potential for illness and injuries.
For instance, wear the following:
- a hat,
- a knit mask to cover face and mouth,
- sleeves that are snug at the wrist,
- when possible, mittens (they are warmer than gloves),
- water-resistant coat and shoes, and
- several layers of loose-fitting clothing.
These materials in contact with the skin greatly increase heat loss from the body.
Do not ignore shivering. It’s an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return to your vehicle or some heated environment.
Awareness is the greatest tool in staying safe and well as a home inspector. There’s no way to know how many accidents and illnesses are prevented by being aware of the hazards inspectors face, but don’t take any chances. Take every step with care and stay safe.
What Should I Do if I Get Stranded in Cold Weather?
- Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers.
- Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
- Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets or newspapers.
- Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
- Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe — this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
- Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.
- And, all seasons of the year, be sure someone knows the time the inspection was scheduled, where it is and when you are expected to check in.