[Urban Wildlife Control Issue] Staying Safe in Attics and Crawlspaces

Features - Annual Urban Wildlife Issue

Attics and crawlspaces can potentially expose PMPs to hazardous conditions.

September 28, 2012

On a daily basis, as pest management professionals we are tasked with determining our clients’ needs, assessing their unique situations and determining solutions to their pest problems. Many times, whether it is a wildlife issue, insect or rodent-related problem, the pests causing the issue have either passed through, or inhabit the crawlspace, or attic, of a home. To conduct a thorough inspection of a home, the crawlspace or attic should not be overlooked, and it should be a key in determining the source, extent and solution to the pest problem. The attic and crawlspace of a home can expose the PMP to some of the most hazardous conditions in our industry. In this article, we’ll discuss what we might encounter, good practices to follow when hazardous conditions are found, and techniques and equipment to make crawlspace and attic work safe and effective.

Attic Safety. Attics can be very challenging to access, but many times we must enter these areas to solve a particular pest problem, or to perform inspections such as a wood-destroying insect inspection for a real estate transaction. There are basic safety techniques we use in our company that not only protect the client’s home or business, but also minimize the chance that an employee is injured while performing attic work.

Pull-down stairs. Pull-down stairs can be very dangerous if not used properly. Before climbing the stairs, do a visual inspection to make sure that the ladder is safe to climb. Check the weight limit to make sure the ladder is made to hold the person climbing it. Make sure the ladder reaches the floor and is stable before climbing. If the ladder does not reach the floor, it is not a good idea to use something to prop the ladder on. The ladders are designed to rest level on the floor and if they are not fully extended or are hanging in the air, they could fail while climbing. You want to make sure that the frame of the stairs is securely fastened the ceiling joists and does not move while climbing. When in doubt, use a step ladder or extending ladder to access the attic.

Ladders. Ladders are a great way to access attics if used properly. Be very thoughtful in choosing the proper type of ladder and, by all means, if the ladder does not feel secure or cannot be placed properly, do not feel too proud to say “no.” When using ladders we need to “weigh” the risks. Make sure we do not exceed manufacturer weight limits and always inspect the ladder before using it. Many times we are using Tyvec suits or wearing shoe covers in a customer’s house. These should never be worn while climbing a ladder. Remove the shoe covers or cut the feet out of the suit (if they can’t be worn inside of shoes) to give a secure contact between the sole of your boot or shoe and the rungs of the ladder. It is best to remove gloves, if possible, to maintain a firm grip on the ladder rungs while climbing. If ladders are being used on the outside of a home to enter the attic from the exterior, or to check a ventilation louver or roof line, power lines are always a concern. A ladder should never be placed in close proximity to electrical lines, and nonconductive fiberglass ladders are a safer alternative to metal ladders.

The call you never want to get. One December morning I received a call from one of my technicians that he was “OK,” but he had stepped through his customer’s ceiling. I quickly drove to the home and, thank goodness, all that was hurt was his pride. The sheetrock ceiling that he stepped through was over a vaulted entryway and there was a 20-foot drop to the hardwood floor below. The technician was fortunate in that he straddled the attic joist and did not fall. The customer had her Christmas decorations on display, and the white insulation on the staircase would have looked quite festive in any other setting. The lessons learned from this event really changed the way that we as a company looked at attic safety. This technician was wearing shoe protectors over his boots, and was walking across insulation-covered attic roof joists, while holding mouse snap traps and peanut butter in his hands. In retrospect, he should have removed his shoe covers and used a belt pouch to hold the traps and bait. The technician should have had his hands free and been able to maintain a sure footing. He should have used portable floor boards to place and move across the joists to ensure a good footing while maintaining three points of contact when moving. Three points of contact means either both feet on the boards and one hand on a rafter; or two hands on the rafter while moving his feet to another position. Since this incident, our company equips all of our wildlife trucks with portable floor boards, and we expect our employees to use them in these types of situations.

An attic mishap resulted in a technician breaking through a customer’s ceiling (above) and “decorating” a living room with insulation.

Protective equipment. Use of proper respiratory personal protective equipment is a must in attics. At a minimum, a simple dust mask should be used if you are venturing off permanent flooring in attics. Insulation comes in many types, and attics, by nature, are inherently dusty anyway. It does not take much to stir up airborne particles that we do not want in our throat and lungs. If a technician is dealing with droppings such as bat, mice, rat or other animal droppings, it is advisable to wear a HEPA filter respirator that is designed to filter out these types of potentially hazardous particles. If animal droppings are going to be removed or disturbed, make sure your employees are trained in the proper removal and disposal of such droppings. Animal droppings differ greatly among species and require different techniques to effectively and safely remediate a problem. Raccoon droppings, for instance, can be quite nasty to deal with. Raccoons in attics have a habit of frequently defecating in the same area of the attic referred to as a “raccoon latrine.” The raccoon droppings can contain the eggs of a parasite called Raccoon Roundworm. The roundworms can shed millions of the worms’ eggs in the raccoon feces. These eggs are very hardy and can survive for many years in the soil or in protected droppings in attics. If a human were to come in contact with the eggs by touching a contaminated area and not washing their hands, they could potentially later transfer the eggs to their mouths. This parasite in humans can be very difficult to diagnose and treat. Because the eggs are resistant to common disinfectants, the droppings must be treated with care and disposed of properly. Rubber gloves, disposable coveralls and respirators are a must when dealing with this type of situation.

In North Carolina one of the common things that we deal with in attics are stinging insects. Great care needs to be taken when trying to tackle a large European hornet’s nest in the soffit area of an attic or a yellow jacket nest buried in attic insulation. We always recommend the use of a bee suit with a veil when dealing with these insects in attics. If you are on a ladder and start getting stung, the first thing that your body tells you to do is to run. That might not be the best choice on a ladder! The bee suit gives you some added protection, and can be an invaluable tool in this situation. Our company prefers to use extending dust poles which allow the technician to “keep his distance” when treating stinging insects in attics whenever possible.

Crawlspaces. “What is behind door number one?” as the old game show phrase would say. We all can probably search our memory banks and recall some very interesting times while in crawlspaces. Just getting to the crawlspace doors sometimes can be a real challenge with stored materials under decks and large rusty wood screws securing doors that are falling off of hinges. One of my most memorable crawlspace experiences started out as a normal trip to inspect a home for a real estate transaction many years ago. The Realtor called me and said that he was going to be a few minutes late, but that the crawlspace was open so I could get started. I arrived at the house, got my coveralls on, and headed around to the back of the vacant house. The crawlspace door was open and I proceeded on in with my trusty flashlight. To my delight, this was one of those crawls you could almost stand up in. I went to the left and proceeded on with my inspection looking for termite tubes. As I approached the front portion of the crawlspace, I heard a noise behind me and heard the crawlspace door close. I first thought it was the Realtor or maybe the wind had blown the door shut. I shined the light toward the rear wall of the house, and as the light swept past the crawl door I saw something that caught my attention. I swept the light back to the left and standing beside the closed door was a very large, brown, hairy animal with bright eyes shining back at me. My mind immediately hit the panic button, but I maintained my composure and started exploring my options. The creature did not move a muscle and neither did I. After what seemed like an eternity (probably only 30 seconds or so), I slowly started moving behind a pillar to try to get a better look at this thing and get something sturdy between him and me. As I closed the distance, I could tell that whatever it was, it was still watching me intently. I eased out from behind the pillar with my heart in my throat, and peered through the dusty air. To my sheer relief, I realized that what I was looking at was a mounted elk head that the previous homeowner had left just inside the crawlspace door. When I opened the door it was hidden from view. Needless to say, I was one happy termite inspector.

In some parts of the country, deep wells (top) can be encountered in crawlspaces, and wells covered with polyethylene vapor barriers (bottom) are particularly hazardous.

There are many hazards that one can encounter in a crawlspace. Bumble bees and yellow jackets can get under debris, or behind subfloor insulation. Light management becomes critical in these situations. The insects are attracted to the light, so remember to turn the flashlight off before exiting the crawl. Watch for hidden nails under vapor barriers or broken glass. A good pair of gloves, coveralls and knee pads are important tools in these settings. A good respirator is recommended, as well as a hat to minimize cuts from the odd nail sticking out of a floor joist. Standing water should be avoided at all cost. Not only is it unpleasant to get into, but it can provide an extreme electrocution risk. Electrical lines lying on the ground should be avoided and not crawled over. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and have the property owner call an electrician. In our area of the country, wells and cisterns can be encountered in crawlspaces. If you are working in older homes, be mindful that these hazards can be covered with a polyethylene vapor barrier, and if you crawl over them you could potentially fall into a dangerous situation. Our employees encountered this recently, and if it had not been for some keen observations, they could have potentially fallen into a 30-foot open well dug under the home that was covered with black plastic sheeting.

FIinal thoughts. Attics and crawlspaces are a very important part of our daily activities as PMPs. We all need to be prepared to deal with the challenges that may be encountered, and provide the proper equipment and training to our employees. Safety practices are best not forgotten. They need to stay fresh in our minds through continuous training, practice and commitment.


The author is vice-president/biologist of McNeely Pest Control, Winston-Salem, N.C., and can be contacted at ffowler@giemedia.com.