While we might enjoy watching the various home improvement shows filling up cable programming, many of us can’t complete the most basic of home improvement projects. The How Do I Fix That? series will show you how to tackle a range of problems that have plagued homeowners for time immemorial. Each installment will provide a walkthrough for the problem at hand so you’ll know what to expect before you get started. Now, get into your old work jeans and roll up your sleeves – we’re going to get messy.
Working in your attic – especially if it’s the unfinished variety – is never anyone’s favorite pastime. They’re often dark, confined spaces that are hard to move around in safely. According to OSHA, unfinished attics are chock-full of hazards for home builders and homeowners:
- Exposed insulation
- Fine particulate dust that makes breathing difficult
- Wiring to trip over
- Low-clearance rafters to hit your head against
- Stabby-sharp nails that stick down from roof decking
- Animal nests with urine-soaked insulation and feces
And let’s not forget that during the day, attics become dangerously hot places, especially during a Texas summer. They can even heat up to a blistering 150°F.
So, how are supposed to protect yourself if you’ve got a job to do in the attic, and you don’t want to knock your head into a rafter than plummet between the joists, through the sheetrock, and into the master bathroom below?
It’s easy – prepare beforehand. This applies to your current job, but it will also help you install few safety protocols to protect you in the future. Here are our nine recommendations for working safely in the attic.
1) Wear Protective Clothing
You want long sleeves and pants to prevent any dust or insulation from making contact with your skin. Sneakers with tread on them and can flex will provide better footing (and perhaps do less accidental damage) than boots. Hard hats can be impractical, so opt for a hooded sweatshirt or knit cap to keep dust and insulation out of your hair and — to some degree — receive a little protection from nails poking down from the roof decking.
2) Wear a Protective Respirator Mask and Goggles
At minimum, wear a disposable N95 mask to protect your airways from dirt and insulation dust. If you know you’ll be working in corners and in close proximity with insulation, wear a cartridge respirator instead.
3) Plan and Organize Your Tools
Keep them in a leather pouch or plastic bag you can easily carry with you – aka the old tool belt. The idea is to save you time so you’re not going up and down the stairs for tools. Not only will you save time by making fewer trips, but you’ll have less of a chance of falling through the joists.
4) Control the Mess
Spread an old sheet beneath the attic steps to catch insulation and dust that falls. This helps keep your living area free of dirt and irritation-causing dust.
5) Make Sure You Have Enough Light
If your attic has lighting, then you’re all set. However, if you’re using a work light, string the cord so that it is out of your way. No one wants a tripping hazard.
In either case, it’s really handy to also bring along a flashlight. All too often, your shadow will fall on the area you want to work on, so extra lighting will make the job easier.
6) Start Early
Attics get HOT during the day. Being swathed in protective clothing in a stifling attic will exhaust you faster and put you at risk for heat-stress. Watch the weather forecast and plan to begin your job as early as possible. Also be ready to stop working and leave if it gets too hot.
7) Avoid Putting All Your Weight on One Joist
While joists might look and feel sturdy, adding your weight to just one area can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Spread out your weight by putting only one foot on one joist. It’s even safer the closer you are to a supporting wall. A good tip to remember is to always have three points of contact — even if one of them is the rafter over your head, it will help keep you balanced.
If you’re going to be working in one area for a while, bring a 3/4 inch thick 2′ x 3′ foot board with you. Place it across two ceiling joists and it will give you a relatively comfortable and stable place to stand, kneel, and/or sit while you work.
8) Watch Out for Tripping Hazards
This is a never-ending to-do list, but it might be the easiest way to keep your work area safe:
- Use zip ties to gather up loose cables and wires.
- Mark low hanging beams with bright yellow paint or day glow flagging tape. Remember, you want it to catch your eye, not your head.
- Hammer down any exposed nails, pry out any bent ones.
- Clean up any building scraps, such as lumber or HVAC ducting.
9) Use a Safety Harness System
OSHA recommends workers on building sites wear a full body harness (or Personal Fall Arrest System) while working in attics. An anchor belt capable of holding 5,000 pounds is secured to one of the truss or rafters. A lanyard attaches to this anchor at one end and clips onto the back of the wearer’s safety harness. Having multiple anchor points around your attic lets you move about safely.
Now, while this idea sounds cumbersome for most homeowners, if you’ve got a body that doesn’t easily navigate the confined unpleasantness of an attic, then it’s a pretty good idea. Remember, protect yourself properly — because gravity doesn’t care.
In short, working in your attic is often necessary, but it requires that you follow specific safety measures to protect yourself and your home.