Look Twice, Act Once - Roof Spaces Month week 2 - Unstable Ceilings

Welcome to the second week of the Look Twice, Act Once campaign focussing on staying safe in roof-spaces. This week, we are going to look at something which many people probably know a little about – but still presents a massive safety risk factor – Unstable Ceilings.

Ceilings, and entering them, can form a large part of the life of an electrician. Whether you’re running cables, terminating connections, putting in lights, or data points, or even diagnosing a potential issue in a new build – you’ll likely find yourself walking around on a ceiling at some point of your career.

But what can be VERY dangerous is an unstable ceiling.

For starters, remember that a ceiling is essentially just plasterboard screwed to a joist. So, there is little-to-no strength in it – and it certainly won’t hold the weight of you if you step on it. But this isn’t what we mean by an unstable ceiling. What we mean, is a ceiling which may collapse.

Whilst this is uncommon, it is still salient to remember that it can occur. So to best protect yourself, we have come up with a few things you can look at and things to avoid doing to help reduce your risk whilst in the roof space.

  1. Inspect the ceiling before going up.

    It is vitally important you inspect your ceiling before heading into the roof space. This can often tell you if there are any issues before heading into the roof, as many major issues will have a symptom that will be easily noticeable from the ground level. Needless to say, if you see any of these symptoms, you must be extremely careful in the roof space.

    The Building Commission of WA issued a warning in 2020 regarding failing ceilings. These were mostly from homes build between 2005 and 2009, in which the ceilings ‘spontaneously collapsed’. They noted that there were a few early warning signs – which we would advise you look for as well from the ground floor looking up at the ceiling before you head into the roof. These include:
    1. Sagging or dropping of the ceiling
    2. Visual cracking in the ceiling
    3. Small circles or blisters (“Nail Pops”) on the ceiling – a sign the plasterboard may be coming away from the nails or screws.
  2. Always work in pairs

    When entering a confined space such as a roofspace, and doubly so when you’re working at heights, you should always work in a pair. This is so if something happens to yourself, or to the person you’re working with, one of you can seek assistance.
  3. Only walk on the Joists

    When you’re up in the ceiling, make sure you are only walking on the joists. This might be easier for some than others, so take your time and walk slowly and succinctly. There’s no prize for rushing to finish your work, or to get from one end of the roofspace to the other quicker than the other person up there – so take it easy. And whatever you do, don’t step on the ceiling itself!

    Additionally, take care to look out for and not step on any pipes or conduits. These can cause you to roll your ankle, slip, or trip – which could send you at the very least sprawling on the joists, or at worse through the ceiling.
  4. Keep your eyes open for anything broken

    If you’re in a trade, there’s a fairly good chance that you’re a good judge if something doesn’t look right. We are not saying here that you should diagnose the problem and suggest a fix – but you can probably look at something and tell it looks ‘off’. So, if you happen to see a rafter, or a joist, or a purlin – or whatever! – that doesn’t look right, then make sure you say something. There may be a break in a joist or a rafter, or they may have been affected by termites or Delignification. If you see this, it is a far safer option to exit the roof space and inform the owner/builder of your potential findings.

And that’s it! It’s not an exact science to not falling through a ceiling – the best thing you can do is not step on one. But we know that accidents happen, and if you happen to put your foot through a ceiling, then that’s fixable. If worse comes to worst, and you go through a ceiling, call 000 immediately. But if you follow our guide, and follow proper safety protocol, it’s likely you won’t have to make that call ever.

Published on: Friday, 10 June 2022