Years ago, working in ceiling spaces usually meant working with fluorescent fixtures and maybe a public-address system. There wasn’t much else up there. Today, you’ll find all sorts of equipment in ceiling spaces, including:
• Communications systems (often several types).
• Low-voltage lighting power supplies.
• Fire alarm and security systems.
• Building automation sensors, controllers, and control elements.
Electrician time in ceiling spaces has radically increased. This additional exposure has helped push the danger level up.
Many hazards of ceiling work are the same as for any overhead work. For example, if you’re standing on a ladder to run cable tray, you have the same fall danger as someone working in a ceiling space from a ladder. OSHA ranks falls from ladders high on the list of work-related injury causes. OSHA also notes most falls are preventable.
Falling isn’t the only danger with ladders, but it is the most common outcome of poor ladder safety practices — nor is a ladder the only elevation platform you can fall from. Regardless of the platform, safely working at elevation means adhering to certain practices.
General rules for working at elevation
• Don’t carry parts or tools while climbing to or from the elevation; you need both hands to climb safely. Use a bucket and rope (or some other means) to hoist parts and tools once you are safely at the elevation.
• Check your shoes before climbing. Liquids or solvents can easily cause your foot to slip and you to fall.
• Always look ahead to plan where your feet will go. Think “feet first.” A single poor decision about foot placement can mean you lose your balance and fall.
• If someone on the ground wants to talk with you, the conversation can distract you from the fall hazards (and other dangers) around you. This is true whether you are shouting across the space between you or talking via phone. Ensure you are in a position of low fall risk, such as down from the ladder. Then stop working and have that conversation.
• Plan for the inevitable dropping of parts (e.g., screws, bolts, washers, connectors, etc.). Bring spares, or have a partner who can hoist them to you. It seems to be a law of physics that if you bring spares, you won’t drop anything. But if you don’t bring spares, you will certainly drop at least one part and must climb down to get it. Hand tools can also be victims of those “oops” moments.
• Where working over grating, cover with a drop cloth. This protects people below. It also keeps you from having to chase parts or tools that fell a long way (and probably bounced off in some odd direction).
• Eliminate “birds nest” wiring arrangements. Use the appropriate supports and/or looming to provide a neat installation. Otherwise, you set the stage for getting tangled in wires. If it’s already a mess, consider bundling what’s there with cable ties or looms to at least clean it up a bit.
• Use an electrically safe ladder. This typically means a ladder with fiberglass rails. It never means an aluminum ladder.
• Use the right size and type of ladder for the job.
• Place the ladder on a stable surface.
• Climb only the front, not the back.
• One person at a time, please.
• Never stand or sit on the top step.
• Keep your hips within the rails.
Compared to ladders, scaffolding is more stable, provides a wider base to stand on, and allows much more lateral movement. However, this doesn’t mean scaffolding is free of hazard.
• On a large project, there’s a scaffolding crew and scaffolding inspector; check the inspection tag before using scaffolding. If you erect your own scaffolding, have a qualified person inspect the scaffolding before you use it. We all make mistakes. Although it’s easy to see ones that other people make, our own are usually not so obvious to us.
• Wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This usually includes a fall restraint device (e.g., harness).
• If using a fall restraint system, tie off on a suitable anchor. If there is no suitable anchor, then this system can’t protect you. You’ll have to use some other kind of fall protection (probably something that must be installed).
Neck pain from looking straight up is a risk for the “ground crew” supporting elevated work (e.g., the guy handing up tools). A sport climber developed special belay glasses that allow you to see up while looking straight ahead; your neck is in a neutral, unstressed position. The glasses also allow you to see straight ahead by redirecting your gaze (similar to bifocal principle). If your work involves much looking up, get these glasses.
“Head forward” neck strain is a hazard of electrical work, regardless of elevation. It leads to chronic and progressive degeneration of first the cervical portion of the spine and then later the rest of the spine. A simple exercise to counter this is to tuck your chin in and pull it as far back as it will go. You should feel this in the back of your neck.
One reason for the higher risk of neck strain when at elevation is there’s often insufficient lighting, so the worker bends forward at the neck to better see the work in poor light. Lightweight LED headlamps solve this problem.
Reduce the risk of neck strain from looking up (craning) and looking down (“head forward” posture) by raising or lowering yourself as close to the work level as is practical. Periodically, take a break, and gently roll your head through the full range of motion that your neck permits.
The shoulder is a complex joint subject to stresses from multiple directions. Shoulder injury risk is high in overhead work because of increased demand on the stabilizer muscles due to misaligned movements. This problem is compounded by the disproportionate shoulder development that most people have. Your first line of defense is to pay attention to the angles of force going into that joint. If you can bend conduit, you can figure this out.
Your second line of defense is to align your shoulders. It’s common to have shoulders rotated forward (humped). Pull your shoulders back, so they are in a straight line. This alignment reduces the load on the ligaments, tendons, and stabilizer muscles, thus greatly reducing the risk of a rotator cuff injury or other problem.
Third, address disproportionate development. Because of its pull direction, the rear deltoid helps protect you from a rotator cuff injury. If it’s poorly developed relative to the other shoulder muscles, it can’t provide that protection. You don’t have to go to a gym to fix this. Iron workers typically have large rear deltoids. Watch them pick up rebar, and you see why.
You can do the iron worker thing with a stick of conduit. Bend at the waist and put your elbows in line with your shoulders (upper arms form a straight line). Then “row” that stick of conduit several times. Keep your lower back out of this movement. Go slowly to eliminate “momentum lifting,” a practice that injures joints, ligaments, and tendons.
Electrical safety at elevation
Beyond the hazards of neck strain, shoulder strain, and falling, ceilings have electrical hazards. To protect yourself:
• Provide adequate lighting so you can see what’s up there.
• Do a quick NEC compliance check. If you see “tip of the iceberg” things like raceway supporting other systems, assume NEC violations are rampant. A full assessment, followed by a risk reduction plan, is necessary.
• Today’s ceiling spaces often contain energized power distribution equipment. Before starting the ceiling work, perform an NFPA 70E-compliant risk assessment.
• Communicate with others in the vicinity. Methods include your lockout/tagout devices, red or yellow barrier tape (as appropriate), signage, and short safety meetings with possibly affected parties.
Assess your way to safety
From OSHA’s data, it’s clear that far too many people doing ceiling work from a ladder believe low height equals low risk. This belief in itself sharply increases the risk level. Good ladder safety practices alone won’t keep you safe. What’s in that space may present a shock hazard or even an arc blast hazard. When it comes to ceiling spaces, always assess before ascending.
Lamendola is an electrical consultant located in Merriam, Kan. He can be reached at [email protected].