You’ve seen those guys. They’re the ones who are hanging from the side of a building washing windows. You probably pay them very little mind, unless they have cordoned off the area below you where you usually go down and grab a smoke.
More often than not, you probably look up and wonder how anyone can wake up each morning and hang off buildings like that. I know I do. I am responsible for risk management and insurance for the largest commercial window cleaning company in the United States.
Each day, our company faces the fear that one of our guys will get severely injured. And while you perhaps think of these guys as an inconvenience, they are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.
Window cleaners are much like firefighters and policemen: a fraternity of the few, who know what they do is dangerous yet essential. Window cleaning is not only aesthetic; it also helps to extend the physical life of the building by cleaning off the elements that accumulate on surfaces, especially in urban areas.
As I sit here watching a window cleaner hanging just outside my eleventh floor office window, I am thinking about the window cleaner in New York who fell 47 stories from a swing scaffold and survived. His brother was killed, but somehow, Alcides Moreno lived. It is not exactly clear what happened that day in December, 2007, but after that swing scaffold hit the ground from 500 feet above, Alcides Moreno had survived and his brother Edgar had not, and one thing is absolutely clear: the survival and bright prognosis for recovery for Alcides Moreno is nothing short of a miracle.
Early indications are that it was human error, mechanical failure, structural failure, or a combination of all three. The reports indicate that the Morenos were not hooked up to a safety line, which would have saved them. There were new cables on the scaffold that may or may not have been properly installed. And it’s also possible that the scaffold was not properly anchored to the building.
It is also believed that this suspended scaffold’s design required that the occupant’s safety lines be attached to the scaffold instead of an independent safety line. Most suspended platform protocols call for safety lines to be hooked up to an independent line attached to the building.
Many buildings, especially the older ones, are not properly equipped to safely secure weight off the side of the roof. Oftentimes, window cleaners have to find innovative ways to secure their lines to their chairs or scaffolds to perform the work safely.
Sometimes, these anchor points are not structurally sound enough to hold the weight of the platform and its occupants.
What most people don’t know is that most buildings can be retrofitted with anchors that protect the structural integrity of the building while safely allowing work in areas that can only be accessed from above. Many property owners look at retrofitting as cost-prohibitive, but insurance cost savings over a relatively short period of time will more than cover the costs of anchor installation.
In 2004, I attended a safety training session for our company in Atlanta. Each crew not only practices safety techniques, but also trains on rescue scenarios. If something goes wrong 20, 30, or 40 stories up, crew members can only rely on each other, and these guys are the best.
When I joined this company, I had consistently stated that I would like to try a drop. But when the day came, even two stories seemed awfully high, so I decided not to ask to rappel down the side of the building.
One of the managers called my bluff. So I climbed up a very long ladder to the top of the two-story warehouse, and started to have second thoughts:
I’m an office guy. I don’t need to do this…
Then I looked down at the ladder and decided it would be a lot less stressful to go down by rope than to go back down that ladder.
So I went down by rope. I would prefer never to have to do that again. I probably will, though, because from 30 minutes of preparation, and the three to five minutes it took to slide down two stories, I came away with an incredible degree of respect and admiration for the people who do this every day, from heights much higher than I experienced.
They put their lives on the line for the noblest of causes – supporting their families. So, if their work interrupts your smoke break, remember this: if everyone does his or her job right, your smoking is a much riskier activity than window cleaning. While the survival of Alcides Moreno is a miracle, the death of Edgar Moreno is a reality that all window cleaners live with every day.
So, if you are a window cleaner, be careful out there. If you are a commercial property owner or manager, check to make sure your building is safe to work on.
Someone’s life might depend upon it.