What are the hazards to avoid when going into an attic?
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
There’s plenty of ways to injure yourself in an attic, as we have learned first-hand from thousands of attic inspections that left a few scars as reminders. But it breaks down into three basic categories of dangers: 1) getting into and out of the attic, 2) moving around, and 3) hazardous materials in the attic.
GETTING IN AND OUT
First your have to find the attic opening and the location may be a mystery. See our blog post Why is there no attic access hatch in the house? for five tips on locating an elusive attic access.
It’s a well-documented fact that most roofing injuries occur while getting on and off the ladder, not on the roof, and attics are the same way. If you are putting a ladder under the access opening, it should reach up to the opening or be tall enough that you can step onto it without having to suspend yourself over the ladder and drop down to it. Don’t lean the ladder against shelving in a closet because it may buckle under the lateral pressure, especially wire shelving.
Pull-down attic ladders are safer, but can be dangerous if improperly installed. See our blog post What are the warning signs of a dangerous attic pull-down ladder? to learn what to look for. Plus, two important rules for using a pull-down folding ladder: always walk up and down facing towards the ladder and be careful as you pass by the hinge-arms at the top not to snag your clothes or something you are carrying on the protruding metal arms.
Before entering, check to be sure there is wood framing all the way around the opening. We occasionally see an attic scuttle with no perpendicular framing between the bottom chords of the adjacent trusses or ceiling joists, and the trim around the opening on two sides is only nailed to the drywall ceiling. It will collapse when you step on an unsupported side of the opening. The photo below is an example of this problem.
The current building code specifies that an attic access opening must be a minimum of 22” by 30”, with at least 30” of headroom clearance directly above the opening. This was not always the case, and older homes may have a much smaller opening that is located in the corner of a closet with minimal headroom. If you choose to enter an attic there, be aware that getting into one of these cramped attic scuttles is a little awkward, but you have to be a contortionist to wiggle your way out backwards. See our blog post What is the building code requirement for an attic access hatch, scuttle, or door? to find out more about the current standards.
Sharp edges that will make you bleed are everywhere in an attic. Nails sticking through the roof sheathing over your head, corners of truss connector plates that are razor-sharp around your shoulders and arms, and splinters on the edges of lumber that you grab onto. There are two things you can do to reduce your risk of injury: move slowly and methodically, and do not go into the attic wearing a cap with a visor that will obstruct your view of what is above you. If you don’t want to take off your cap, turn it around backwards. Some home inspectors wear a plastic bump hat in attics as an additional safety measure.
Storage boxes, HVAC ducts, and plumbing pipes may obstruct access to areas that you want to see. While stored items can be moved if it’s not too extensive, ducts and pipes cannot. Crawling over ducts will damage them and, in some homes, they prevent access from one side of the house to the other. Installing a second access opening may be necessary when you encounter this problem.
Everybody knows that walking only on the bottom chord of trusses or the ceiling rafters is necessary to avoid damaging or falling through the ceiling but, when there is a thick layer of blown insulation, they may not be visible. So press gently down with you foot directly below roofing framing in front of you to feel for the lumber below it before putting your full weight on the foot. Most of the time your will find lumber there, but sometimes not.
If you’re lucky, there will be a plywood platform or walk boards laid out in the attic, just be sure to verify that they are nailed down before stepping on them. Some homeowners lay down loose pieces of plywood in the attic for storage, like in the photo below, and they may slide away off bearing or seesaw up as you walk or crawl on them.
But a few scrap pieces of plywood can also be useful. We carry several in the back of our truck, long enough to span between two truss bottom chords or ceiling rafters, and put them down to lay on when we have to squeeze in close to the end of the trusses or rafters.
The list of hazardous stuff you might encounter in an attic keeps expanding, but here’s our best guess at what you might find:
- Loose wire ends laying on top of the insulation may be an abandoned piece of NM-cable scrap or a live wire. Stay away.
- If you encounter a long-term roof leak with mold growth festering around it, get out of the attic and call a mold removal professional. Most molds are primarily lung irritants but some are deadly. Hanging around near it will, at a minimum, give you a sore throat.
- Entering an attic with vermiculite insulation, which contains asbestos, is a serious health hazard. See our blog post Why is vermiculite attic insulation a problem for both buyers and sellers of a home? for more information and how to recognize it. Leave the attic immediately.
- Rodent urine stains in the insulation and fecal pellets means rats or squirrels are in the attic.
- Electrical cables that have had insulation chewed off by squirrels or rats, exposed live wiring metal.
- Unsecured cable and low-voltage wires that can be tripped over, which is especially risky around the attic opening.
- A hot attic is dangerous. It is not unusual for us to register an air temperature of 130º F in a Florida attic on an August afternoon, and the roof sheathing radiates more heat onto you while you are below it. Heat stroke can sneak up on your if you linger too long.
- Insecticide powder, animal poison bait, and unsprung rat traps.
Sorry if all these warnings are a little intimidating, but an attic is a minefield of hazards for anyone unfamiliar with how to safely navigate around inside. We do not recommend going into the attic much further than the immediate area around the hatch opening unless you really need to, and it’s best to call a professional for any necessary repair work in an attic.
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To learn more about roofs and attics, see these other blog posts:
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