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The fearless window cleaners of the Empire State Building

Ian Harvey

Let’s face it, not everyone is suited to be a window cleaner, especially those who have a fear of heights. The occupation of cleaning windows on a skyscraper is a very dangerous job and each year many in this profession die or are injured.

As buildings became higher and higher, so did the windows that required cleaning. An occupation in window cleaning materialized in the late 19th century in New York City when the world’s first skyscrapers were being built.

Empire State Building Photo Credit
Empire State Building Photo Credit

The height of the building increased the risk to the window washers. In the beginning, cleaners would wash skyscraper windows by holding onto the frame with one hand, cleaning with the other hand, all while standing on the window ledge. Later, the cleaners were introduced to leather safety belts attached to anchor bolts. Then scaffolds came into being and eventually electrically operated scaffolding was used, such as the one built by the Otis Elevator Company for use at Lever House.

Three window cleaners were working at the World Trade Center at the time of the September 11 attacks. Roko Camaj and Fabian Soto were working in the South Tower on this fateful day and were killed. Jan Demczur was working in the North Tower. He survived and was instrumental in saving five other people who had been trapped with him in an elevator.

Window cleaners of the Empire State Building Photo Credit
Window cleaner of the Empire State Building Photo Credit

A couple of risks associated with this occupation include slipping on water or soap and falling from extreme heights. An average of one out of every two hundred window washers was killed per year in New York in 1932. Four window washers were killed when a scaffold fell at the Equitable Building on 29 May 1962. The New York window cleaners’ union, local 32BJ, launched an apprentice training program in 1993, increasing job safety among its members, although at the time there were increasing numbers of non-unionized window cleaners in the city.

There is no government licensing required for window cleaners in the United States, England or Wales, unlike in Scotland – this means anyone can claim their occupation is a window cleaner. The most dangerous job in the UK is deemed to be window cleaning; many window cleaners are injured each year and several are killed on the job.

Many window cleaning companies are asserting that the European Directive 2001/45/EC is promoting laws that are about to come into force that will make ladders illegal for window washers. However, the government denies this provision, as ladder use for window cleaning is a ‘low risk and short duration’ tool.

A worker bolts beams during construction
A worker bolts beams during construction

To clarify the government’s position, the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) is not attempting to prohibit the use of ladders or stepladders but advises the profession that ladders shouldn’t automatically be the first choice of access. Only after a proper evaluation of the current site conditions and assessing other possibilities should they be used.

Read another story from us:In July 1945, the Empire State Building was hit by a B-25 Bomber

The process of how access equipment is selected is coming under more intense examination during HSE inspections. This direction clarifies that provided a number of well-recognized precautions are taken for short duration work like window cleaning; ladders will remain a common tool for many jobs.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News