The decision to walk a roof or not boils down to comfort level, according to John Cranor, ASHI Technical Committee chair. He firmly believes anyone uneasy with heights should not be on a roof, period.
Ask a home inspector about the risks of the job, and roofs will be mentioned. But crawl spaces, attics, electrical panels, pull down attic stairs, ladders, windows, dogs, and even driving to the job also made the list when Cranor and fellow ASHI Technical Committee Members Barry Irby and Norman R. Clark were asked about the hazards of their profession.
If a hazard is the potential for harm, then in the context of work it is a condition or activity that, if left uncontrolled, can result in an injury or illness. Working alone, 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. The consequences of a major injury or illness can be catastrophic, especially for the self-employed or small businessperson. And although fatal job-related accidents are rare and illnesses are poorly documented, they do happen. 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.
Cranor, for instance, has the following general guidelines for limiting the risk of roof walking.
1) It is usually much easier to get on and go up than to come down and get off the roof – something to always keep in mind.
2) A shingle roof that is dark with algae and damp from dew or a recent rain is typically slick as oiled glass.
3) Pine needles will send you off the roof like a sliding board.
4) You should never walk a slate or asbestos roof unless you have a trunk full of replacements and the ability to repair; plus slate is slick.
5) A wood shake is not much better. It is often very slick, but depending on the condition and slope, it may be okay.
6) Deteriorated shingles can be difficult to walk dependent on slope.
7) It is always advisable to check the attic prior to walking, often there are broken boards or there may be a leak with rotted out wood.
8) It’s not wise to walk around on a roof during an approaching lightning storm.
9) Metal roofs are sometimes okay depending on slope - they can be deceiving and slick. If wet, stay off.
10) High wind can blow down your ladder or cause you to lose balance.
11) Frost on a white roof is hard to see and can be in one spot and not in another.
Irby takes a different approach to reducing the risks of inspecting roofs.
He only walks a roof if he can’t see it from the ground.
“Years ago one of my guys fell off a roof and broke his hip,” he explained.
He walks flat roofs, but never slate or tile roofs.
“They’re dangerous in both senses. You can step on a loose slate and be in the bushes all too quickly. And you will likely damage the roof.”
He concluded, “Another risk is that if you walk a roof and later it leaks, your defense is actually much weaker than if you only observed it from a distance. The client, real estate agent or seller will claim you damaged it by walking on it. They will say it was fine until you put your big feet on it. You will say that you did not step on the spot that is leaking, and they will point out that if you had, you would have found the leak.”
He said that in 18 years he’s never had a call back on a roof that would have gone the other way had he walked it.
Driving to the job
Irby and Clark both named an often overlooked hazard – driving to the job. Their opinion is supported by government agency reports. According to NIOSH, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of work-related fatalities. The Department of Transportation reports deaths in pickups and utility vehicles have more than doubled since 1975. Crashes also cause disabling injuries, more than 2.2 million in 1999 according to the National Safety Council.
Many agencies list alcohol, speed, and other problematic driver behaviors as factors contributing to crashes, and lack of seat belt use as a factor contributing to injuries and fatalities. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety adds driver distraction to the crash-causing list, declaring “Every driver is distracted some of the time.”
“Around a quarter of all traffic crashes are caused by distractions, which annually account for 1.2 million incidents,” said Peter Kissinger, President of the AAA, an independent, publicly funded, charitable research and educational organization.
And while cell phones are the distraction people love to hate, other distractions were far more prevalent and could be more hazardous.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center used in-car video cameras to see how drivers behaved when they were behind the wheel of their own cars. The tapes showed that distraction is an everyday occurrence:
Over three hours of driving, all of the drivers were distracted at some point, 90 percent by something outside the car and 100 percent by something inside the
This chart shows the percentage of drivers who engaged in the most common distracting activities while driving.
“We found that people do adjust their behavior to a certain extent,” Kissinger said.
“They have a tendency to do potentially distracting things while their car is stopped.
People often underestimate the seriousness of distractions because not every distraction leads to a crash. But if you are distracted just when someone pulls out in front of you, your lack of attention can be catastrophic.”
Reducing the risk of driving usually means changing habits, not an easy thing to do. For those serious about reducing the risks, the National Safety Council offers an on-line defensive driving course, and tips for avoiding aggressive drivers.
Unfortunately, reducing the risk of inspecting homes is usually not a matter of training. Safety training for home inspectors is nonexistent. Even if it were available, according to OSHA’s Job Hazard Analysis brochure (3071), experience has shown that training is not effective in hazard control when triggering events happen quickly, because humans can react only so fast. When a worker’s hand comes into contact with a rotating pulley or when a floor collapses under a home inspector, there is little time to recall and follow what one has been taught. The idea here is to avoid triggering a rapidly-occurring, injury-causing event, which is more difficult for a home inspector. The home inspector enters uncharted territory with each job, while the machinist works in the same place with the same equipment and tools every day.
Clark used the term “booby trapped” to describe many of the homes he inspects, an apt term to describe common hazards, such as the following:
- homeowner inspired repairs to electrical wiring;
- long, pointed electric panel screws;
- live wires in attics and crawlspaces;
- windows that act as a guillotine, the top sash slamming down when unlatched, and
- crawlspaces full of unidentifiable substances and creatures.
The responsibility for personal safety by default rests with the individual home inspector. When one unexpected event or simple human error could lead to a severe injury or illness, few activities can be treated as routine. Learning to recognize hazards is the first step in preventing injuries. Home inspectors generously share their technical expertise. They also share their experiences and procedures for recognizing and handling hazards — valuable information, usually developed under fire in the field.
To reduce the risks of the job, a home inspector can make his or her own list of hazards and decide what can be done to avoid potential injury or illness. For one home inspector it may be learning more about protective gear, for another defining the conditions that will keep him or her out of a crawlspace or off a roof. Almost always a part of the answer is being totally aware of what one is doing – never taking anything for granted.
Contributors: Barry Irby, Home Reporters Inc. Chester, Va.; Norman Clark, Norm Clark Property Inspections, Inc.; Olathe, Kan; and John Cranor, Cranor Home Inspectors, Glen Allen, Va.