Letter to the Editor
Submitted by Roger Hankey, ASHI Certified Inspector, and Kevin O’Hornett, Retired ASHI member
The September 2015 ASHI Reporter featured an article, “Ensuring Safety for Children at Home.”
The author of the article, Carol Dikelsky, writes that “ASHI member Skip Walker noted that home inspectors’ No. 1 job is ensuring safety, and that ensuring the safety of children is especially critical. He expressed that [Parents for Window Blind Safety] has raised the level of awareness about what the window covering industry is not telling consumers about safety, [sic] and suggested that home inspectors should be aware of [PFWBS founder Linda Kaiser’s] campaign for pointing out the life-threatening flaws in design.”
Contrary to Skip Walker’s position, “ensuring safety” is NOT the primary task of ASHI home inspectors. To “ensure” means to secure or guarantee; to make sure or certain; to make secure or safe, as from harm. If the primary task of home inspectors is “ensuring safety,” then along with recommending modification of window covering cords, inspectors should also be aware of and discuss and document all potential “safety” issues in a home. They should also be familiar with every campaign, movement and organized effort pertaining to potential “safety” issues in homes. This would include recommending that every home they inspect be modified to meet all of the most current applicable building codes as well as all the recommendations promulgated by various organizations such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), etc. Only in this way could inspectors “ensure safety.”
The task of ASHI home inspectors is to conduct a primarily visual examination of a home’s readily accessible systems and components in accordance with the ASHI Standard for conditions which are adversely affecting or which have the potential to adversely affect their normally intended functions or operations. The normally intended functions or operations of systems and components can be defined as the customary and conventional purpose or use for which they were installed and for which they were designed and intended by their manufacturers.
While part of such normally intended functions or operations may include safety of use, installation, assembly and operation, that doesn’t mean and should not be extrapolated to imply that home inspectors are performing “safety” inspections. The article ends with the statement, “A home inspector’s thoughtful warning about safety issues has the potential to save a child and a family from experiencing tragedy.”
How should such a “warning” be provided to customers? Bringing a customer’s attention to conditions which lie outside the scope of the home inspection through a thoughtful discussion rather than a “warning” is something individual inspectors may choose to do. However, such conditions do not belong in the body of the written report. They should never appear as adverse conditions or include recommendations to address them as such. Otherwise, unless inspectors document every single potential “safety” concern, they are not “ensuring safety.” To “ensure” means to secure or guarantee; to make sure or certain; to make secure or safe, as from harm. The concept that “ensuring safety” is part of the scope of an ASHI inspection leaves inspectors open to the potential for litigation based on a claim of negligence for failing to report a “safety” issue which resulted in an injury or death. Regarding this particular issue, as an attorney with whom this was discussed pointed out, it’s a slippery slope. Once inspectors are in for a dime, they’re in for a dollar.
It is clear from the ASHI Standard that inspectors are NOT required to inspect “window treatments.” We have no objection to verbally discussing risks to children from window blind cords with customers or directing customers to resources about home safety, but placing remarks about those conditions in the report opens the door to the question of “why didn’t you also tell me about these other safety concerns?” Where does it end? While the ASHI Standard includes the term “unsafe” along its definition which, in our view, directly contradicts the Section 13 of the ASHI Standard, subsection 13.2 General Exclusions, part A 8. Stating “safety” is our #1 job increases inspector liability and improperly redirects the purpose of the inspection.
Inspection reports should be limited to the items required to be reported by the Standard. If inspectors want to include more, they would be well advised to check with their attorneys and E&O insurance carriers.
The notion that ASHI home inspections should first and foremost focus on a home in terms of safe, unsafe and safety was never part of the original mission of ASHI or of its standards and does not accord with the “Purpose and Scope” as stated in the current ASHI Standard. It is an idea which has emerged (mission creep) over the intervening years. It increases inspectors’ potential legal exposure. Unless the ASHI Standard is modified to encompass the concept of “ensuring safety,” then it should not be presented as or even alluded to as an additional responsibility of inspectors.
The concept of “ensuring safety” may be seen as enhancing the benefits of home inspection in terms of marketing. However, its unintended consequence is to increase the potential liability of inspectors as well as the potential for buyers to demand of sellers that they make modifications to satisfy the particular safety concerns documented in the report but which are outside the scope of the ASHI Standard.
Point / Counterpoint
Response to the Letter to the Editor
Submitted by Skip Walker, ASHI Certified Inspector
The impassioned response from Roger Hankey and Kevin O’Hornett to the September 2015 article on child safety makes some excellent points. However, I don’t believe the intent of the article was to expand the scope of our inspections, add to our liability or to alter the ASHI Standard of Practice. It was simply an attempt to bring some awareness to a safety issue that impacts nearly a hundred million U.S. and Canadian homes and results in about 30 senseless child deaths in the United States each year. I agree completely that the job of a home inspector is not to guarantee the safety of the home. But I firmly believe that safety is at the heart of what we do as inspectors. For me, the most gratifying days as an inspector are not when I find some framing mistake, but rather when I find an issue where someone might have died had I not been there.
When I heard Linda Kaiser speak at the CPSC about the strangulation death of her 12-month-old child from corded window blinds, I was deeply moved. Out of her personal tragedy, Linda founded Parents for Window Blind Safety (www.pfwbs.org). She became a member of the UL committee that deals with window blind safety design standards. During Linda’s testimony, she recounted how industry and the manufacturers have undue influence over the window blind safety standards. She has been on the committee for over a decade, yet the committee has been unable to pass any meaningful changes in the standard. In the meantime, 30 kids die needlessly each year. Many UL standard committees are heavily populated by manufacturers and industry consultants. They block effective changes to the very standards their products must meet. This has been a big issue with changes to the smoke alarm standards as well.
The ASHI Standard of Practice represents the minimum level of performance during an inspection. There is nothing that precludes an individual inspector from making the business decision to exceed the standard. Many of us, including myself, do so every day! There are inspectors using carbon monoxide detectors to test indoor air and appliance draft, IR cameras to look at electrical panels, test for hidden water leaks, etc. All far beyond the Standard. Every time we use a photo in an inspection report, we exceed the standard.
During the course of a typical inspection, we note many issues: Federal Pacific Electric and Zinsco panels, solid aluminum wiring, Knob & Tube Wiring, Consolidated Furnaces, improperly installed or damaged decks, improperly constructed stairs, missing handrails, low or improperly constructed guards, displacement in walkways, improper drafting of gas appliances. The list goes on and on. At the heart of each and every one of those calls is not some arcane technical issue—it is safety! Every one of those calls poses a safety hazard of some kind to the occupants.
Every one of us will make a business decision on how we deal with new information. Obviously, no one can know everything about every possible issue. I accept that. However, that will not discourage me from doing what I can, where I can, when I can. Is there some added liability in doing so? Perhaps. I will gladly accept that risk for the chance to save a child. If a small child were injured (or worse) in a house I inspected, I would much rather be able to say that I did what I could as opposed to saying that I did nothing. I think that as an organization of professional inspectors, we can bring some awareness to this and similar safety issues. I believe in doing so we elevate the status of our profession.Personally, I simply cannot justify doing nothing because I can’t do everything. Personally, I choose not to say that safety is outside the scope of this inspection.