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Challenging Work Conditions: In The Home Of A Hoarder

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You’ve arrived at the home of your client, ready for your service call.  Unfortunately, when you are greeted at the door, you can see mountains of “stuff” behind your customer.  How can you repair the equipment when you can’t even get to the equipment?  To help you with your challenge, here are some agreed upon best practices specifically for hoarding situations.

Hoarding is the excessive acquisition of items that appear to have limited value, combined with the inability to discard them.  The hoarder has often spent years acquiring the items, and can escalate from collecting specific items to the overwhelming urge to acquire anything that may be considered to be useful at a later time.  Studies have shown that hoarding can be linked to past traumatic and stressful events in the hoarder’s life and as of May 2013, hoarding was officially recognized as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

There are several things that you, as a service provider can do, or not do, which will make the encounter more tolerable for you, and for your client.  The goal is to deliver a high level of customer service while causing the least amount of stress possible to the resident, and in the process ensuring your own safety.

To begin with, act professionally and make an effort not to show an emotional reaction to the hoard or to be judgmental about the client or the situation.  “Treat them as you would treat any other customer” recommends April Hidalgo of Maki Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. in Auburn, California.  Hoarders collect things for the same reasons other people do:  they find the items sentimental, useful, or beautiful. Commonly hoarded items are newspapers, kitchen garbage, mail, clothing, used food containers, cans and bottles.

Hoarder’s homes have multiple safety hazards, so evaluate the safety of the situation and be alert to your environment before you enter.  Are there animals?  If so, ask the client to contain them.  If the home has a multitude of animals it may be unsafe for you to enter without a respirator.  Before entering the home, take into consideration any medical conditions you may have, such as asthma.

If you sense the premises are too unsafe or unsanitary to enter, speak with the client outside.  Ask if there is the possibility of negotiating a minimum level of safety to be reached before scheduling a return visit.  Reasonable requirements include a clear 24”-36” wide pathway to the equipment site that is also free of potential “avalanche” zones, safe egress in the event of a fire or other emergency during the visit, and a minimum clearance zone around the equipment to provide space in which to work.

It is important to dress properly for the working in the hoarder’s home.  Depending on the severity of the hoarding and the condition of the home, the following items are recommended:

  • Non-slip shoes or boots with socks.
  • Dust mask (if exposure will be brief), or respirator (if work necessitates prolonged exposure).
  • Disposable jumpsuit coverall with elastic at ankles and wrists.
  • Disposable booties and surgical hat.
  • An extra set of clothes.
  • Disposable gloves/heavy rubber gloves.
  • Protective eyewear.
  • Insect repellant.

It is also recommended that you pack an emergency kit.  Remember, there may likely be no sanitary facilities in the home.  There may not even be running water.  Some of the items you should have on hand are:

  • Saline (for rinsing eyes) and eye drops.
  • Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.
  • Hand sanitizer, baby wipes, paper towels.
  • Bottled water.
  • Bandages and antibacterial ointment.
  • Over the counter allergy medication (for dust, mold and mildew).
  • Eucalyptus based ointment (such as Vicks Vapor Rub) in the event the odor is overwhelming.  (Rub some under your nose to help cover the smell.)

Upon entering, don’t forget to glance upward.  Some unsafe conditions may be on the ceiling such as a bowed, moldy or crumbling ceiling.  Walk slowly to ensure you have steady footing and brace yourself by holding onto furniture if necessary.  Be mindful of sharp objects under foot such as nails or rusty metal.  Be on the alert for spiders and other potentially poisonous bugs.  Other hazards may include rotten food, flammable materials and animal feces.  “Make sure nothing flammable is being stored around any HVAC systems” advises Ms. Hidalgo.

If you have to work under the home, in the basement or crawl space, give particular attention to the weight that the floor is bearing.  In some hoarding situations, the floor joists can be stressed due to excessive collecting of newspapers, magazines, books and furniture.

Whenever possible, avoid touching the client’s possessions.  Hoarders often have a negative emotional reaction to “unauthorized touching”.  Another very good reason to avoid touching anything you don’t need to is to avoid stirring up dust which may contain particles harmful to you.

When you leave the client’s home, take the time to brush yourself off.  Remove the disposable jumpsuit by rolling it down and in on itself as you go.  Place it in a garbage bag along with your gloves and dust mask and securely close the bag.  Dispose of this bag as soon as possible.  Place your other items, such as shoes and protective eyeware in a separate plastic bag with secure closing for later cleaning.  It is recommended that you clean these items outdoors.

At your earliest convenience, put on a fresh change of clothes, and secure the clothes used at the hoarding site in a plastic bag with secure closure.  These clothes should be heated to 113 degrees F to kill fleas, bedbugs, and their eggs.  It is recommended to put them in the dryer set on high for 30 minutes before washing them.

Following your appointment at the residence of a hoarder, if you experience any physical symptoms you think may be related to the visit, see your doctor and indicate you were in a hoarder’s home.

Melinda Wamsley

Posted In: ACCA Now, Customer Service

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