False ceilings create a handy space to conceal structural elements of the building and pipes and cables. But when these installations require maintenance or alteration, what hazards should you take into account?
When work takes place in a ceiling void the overriding difficulty is in gaining safe access. Traditionally you might choose a stepladder for this work, remove as few ceiling tiles as possible and try to carry out the work whilst the premises are operational. You might find that the stepladder cannot be positioned in the best place for the work due to the location of desks, and that other staff moving about the room are at risk of knocking into it. The worker on the ladder has no chance of intervening to stop a potential accident below, being buried from the waist up in a tangle of insulation, pipes and wires. On the top of this there’s a risk during the work of dropping tiles, tools and materials below.
Spend some time determining what access is needed for the work to be done safely and whether the area needs to be vacated. Ask the contractor’s opinion and lift some trial ceiling tiles (once you’ve checked for asbestos). Be prepared to move furniture around if it makes for easier access. Also consider the use of podium steps or scaffold platforms.
Voids within buildings can hide the presence of asbestos, e.g. as sprayed insulation on structural beams, fire separating structures or ceiling tiles made of asbestos products, pipe insulation, or debris left over from previous poorly executed asbestos stripping. If your building was constructed prior to 2000 ensure that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) have been identified. This usually requires a professional asbestos survey. Prior to any work, check the asbestos register to identify whether there is a risk of disturbing ACMs. If there is, obtain health & safety advice on the best way to proceed.
Another all too common problem with work in these concealed spaces is that there are often legacies from previous poor workmanship. For example, there could be potentially dangerous electrical installations or other hazards lurking waiting to be discovered. If, while carrying out your inspection prior to the work, you discover the cut ends of cables which are not coiled, taped, labelled, action should be taken before any work takes place. Arrange for an electrical check to trace the cables and unless they’re required, have them removed or made safe.
To avoid making things worse for the next job, control the quality of work carried out by agreeing tight specifications with contractors, and inspecting the completed work before the ceiling is put back. One concern to look out for is the creation of new fire breaches during the work. As a general rule you don’t want new holes created between areas or levels of your building without them being adequately ‘fire stopped’. Ensure that holes are properly sealed with fire-retardant materials.