Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Attic Safety

If you do pest control, few work sites can match the extremes of what you find in attics. Work in attics can be hot (or cold), difficult and dangerous if you’re not at the top of your game. Yet inspecting and servicing attics can be a critical aspect of pest control, especially for residential customers.  So in the spirit of keeping safe during the holidays, here are a few tips I've gathered for working in attics.
Having a stable work platform and maintaining three points of
contact when moving are essential for attic safety. (Photo by

Scheduling. In Texas, heat may be the biggest safety challenge of all in attics. If possible, it's best to schedule any summer attic work for the morning. Afternoon attic temperatures in Texas in the summer can range from 120 to 180 degrees F– dangerously high. Most pest control inspections in attics will be relatively short, but if you have to spend any significant time in an attic, get an early start and make sure you have plenty of water and/or electrolyte drink handy.

Clothing. Proper clothing is needed to protect you from Fiberglas insulation, nails, hard objects and possibly bites and stings.  Long-sleeved shirt tucked into pants, safety glasses and bump hat are pretty important. Thick soled shoes or boots to protect against nails are highly recommended. And take it from someone with more than his fair share of bumped heads, if you don’t have a bump hat--any kind of cap or hat is better than none.

Safety Equipment.  Perhaps the most important attic safety gear is a respirator. A disposable NIOSH rated N-95 respirator (retains 95% of 0.3 micron-sized particles) is the minimal protection you need from short exposures to Fiberglas dust in attics. Cheap surgical masks are not sufficient here. If you suspect rodents are present, especially in rural homes where deer mice could be present, more sophisticated protection is needed. The CDC publishes recommendations for risk reduction when working in environments where hantavirus is a risk. For any PMP who removes deer mice from traps, or work closely with rodents, CDC recommends a half-face, tight-seal, respirator with N100 filter. If you have facial hair, like I do, or if you do not medically qualify to use a negative seal filter, you may need a (positive pressure) PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator), equipped with N-100 filters.  Expensive!

A fit-tested, half-face respirator with N-100 filters is the
minimum protection you should wear when working around
rodent droppings or other potential biohazards.
If you'll be handling dead animals in an attic, insulation or other vertebrate-pest contaminated materials, rubber, latex, vinyl or nitrile gloves are essential.  You will also need a sprayer or spray bottle to spray infested insulation or dead rodents with a 10% bleach solution, and two plastic bags to hold the dead animals.

Tools. Carry any loose tools you need in a tool bag that you can drag with you. Always set your tools aside in the tool bag rather than on a rafter and risk losing them among insulation. Bring a corded work light or backup flashlight with you. This will be important if you drop your primary flashlight, or if your primary light's battery fails.

A digital camera may be very useful for documenting what you find in the attic.

Getting Around. If you must travel from stable flooring onto joist beams, follow the rock climber's rule and maintain three points of contact at all times. Move only one foot or hand at a time, keeping your other feet and hands on a secure joist or rafter. Joistmate™ (see picture) is one commercially available platform designed to provide a stable platform for working on joists.

Take the advice of a PMP friend who fell through a ceiling many years ago, "never step blindly into insulation assuming a joist or floor decking will be there. If you cannot see the decking, beams or joists, DON’T STEP THERE. And don’t assume that all joists are on 16 inch centers. Twenty-four inches is more common in newer homes." He also advises everyone to be wary of beams or joists that might be damaged by termites or rot. They may not hold your weight.

It's a good idea to disturb insulation as little as possible to avoid stirring up dirt, dust, fibers and mold. Even when wearing a respirator, you'll want to minimize tracking contaminates down from the attic on clothing.  And if you see old vermiculite insulation, which if breathed can cause cancer, leave it alone.

Be Ready for Surprises. You are in the attic for pest control purposes, so be ready for pests! Keep a sharp eye open for signs of bee hives or wasp nests, or other pests like rats, bats, squirrels or raccoons. The possibility of being startled by encountering a scurrying pest is another good reason to have at least three good hand-holds or secure footing at all times. Always think about your escape route in case you encounter a wild animal.

Vaccines. In this business keeping up with your tetanus shots is a good idea, especially in a location where a sharp nail can appear where you least expect it.  If it's been more than 7 years, you need a booster shot.  And if you work in an area with bats, or where you commonly encounter wild (possibly rabid) animals like skunks or foxes, consider a rabies vaccine.  It is MUCH cheaper to get the rabies vaccine before you need it, than getting it after being exposed to the bite of a rabid or potentially rabid animal (personal experience here again, story for another post).

Ladders.  Falls from ladders are a leading cause of occupational death nationwide. If you use a ladder to access an attic, make sure it is firmly set up (75 degree angle is best) and rated for your weight. Don't descend a ladder face forward. Maintain that three point of contact rule and don't reach for items when ascending or descending. It's also a good idea to place plastic under the attic ladder, or be prepared to vacuum any insulation or debris that falls from the attic into the house.

Considering all the potential hazards working in attics, you might ask, "why bother?" Certainly anyone who manages urban wildlife, or does rodent control, knows that attic service is an essential part of their work.  But termite inspectors and PMPs doing general household pest control also have plenty of reasons to venture into attics or onto roofs. Let's promise ourselves that when we do, we'll put safety first.

If you have any memorable experiences, or safety tips for working in attics, I'd like to hear about them. We're in the process at A&M of putting together an attic servicing and safety curriculum as part of the new IPM Experience House. Your input could be an important addition to our training class. Contact me via the email link under my complete profile at right.

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