Picture this.

It’s a beautifully sunny day with a blissfully blue sky. You’re suspended 300ft in the air with spectacular views across the city. It’s no wonder you chose to become an industrial window cleaner.

Yet window cleaning, especially on high-rise buildings, is not for the faint hearted. You need nerves of steel to benefit from the sensational scenery and fresh air.

Thankfully, high-rise window cleaning is generally considered a very safe profession. That can be put down to decades of improvements in safety equipment and standards. But if complacency sets in, or the right precautions aren’t in place, it is still high risk.

What are the health and safety risks when high rise window cleaning?

While those unfamiliar with window cleaning may not view the profession as dangerous, there are plentiful hazards that must be overcome. The most obvious is of course working at height.

In 2020/21 there were 142 work related deaths according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Almost 25% of those were caused by falls from height . Despite the improved culture around height safety, it remains one the leading causes of fatal accidents at work. This has consistently been the case since 2017.

For the window cleaner, the means of accessing a window presents the greatest risk. To stay safe, having a thorough understanding of the task at hand, and therefore choosing the most appropriate access equipment for the job, is vital. The first step should always be undertaking a full and thorough risk assessment before every clean so you have a clear view on how to proceed.

What are the means of access?

There are various means a window cleaner can use to access areas of work at height. These include:

  • Ladders – This is perhaps the most common and simplest of methods used to access windows on higher levels, although almost certainly not suitable for high-rise buildings.

    When cleaning smaller buildings or residential properties, it’s important to understand how to operate a ladder safely. Window cleaners must ensure the correct footwear is worn and that the recommended working loads are not exceeded. The height of the ladder should also be appropriate for the job to prevent overreaching and leaning.

  • Travelling ladders and gantries – Travelling ladders and gantries are often deployed on high-rise buildings with large areas of glazed roofing. While useful, high rise window cleaners must ensure it has been properly installed, inspected, and maintained before each use.

  • Suspended access equipment – For specialised window cleaning tasks, suspended access equipment such as cradles should be used. Of course, as with any type of access equipment, proper training is essential. The SWL should never be exceeded and the equipment only used in safe weather conditions.

  • Rope access – There are many scenarios whereby rope access is simply the best way to get the job done. Rope access methods allow cleaners to carry out the job with speed and access locations that might have otherwise been difficult to get to. Deploying the correct working practices and PPE is essential.

What external influences can make window cleaning at height dangerous?

As well as means of access, there are a range of other hazards that can increase risk when window cleaning on high rise buildings. According to the HSE , the following external influences must be considered before starting a project:

  • Project location – Buildings in busy town or city locations can present different risks to those on industrial estates and domestic properties. Consideration should be given to the time of cleaning, traffic conditions and preventing public access to areas directly below the working area to minimise the risk of them being struck by any falling object.

  • Weather conditions – Are there procedures in place to stop work in the event of adverse weather conditions that could endanger those working at height e.g., high winds when using access equipment?

  • Surface – What surface will the access equipment rest on? Is this surface strong enough to take the weight of the workers and their equipment?

  • Ground – What is the ground condition under the area where access equipment might need to be set up - for example, is it sloping, muddy or uneven? The access equipment you use must be suitable for the ground conditions - stable, level and not liable to fall or collapse.

  • Tools/materials – What tools or materials will you need for window cleaning? How will you get them up and down safely? How will you secure tools to avoid them being accidentally dropped?

Do you need a strict plan?

There is always an element of risk attached to working at height. Perhaps accidents are even inevitable from time to time. But with sound preparation, thorough planning, relevant training and the right tools, accidents and injuries when window cleaning can be kept to a minimum.

That’s where STRICTPLAAN, a useful and memorable height safety planning framework, can help. It’s been devised to help those planning work or operating at height to remember the necessary steps to ensure all tradespersons get home safely at the end of each day.

  • S – Scenario – Closely evaluate the scenario to determine if it is necessary to work at height. Can you safely work with two feet on the ground? Most high-rise buildings will of course require window cleaners to work at height.

  • TR – Threats and risks – Determine the threats and risks by undertaking a full and thorough risk assessment, as defined by the HSE. Being aware of all the risks and understanding how they can cause accidents or injury is the only way to eradicate them.

  • I – Instigate – Once the risks have been defined, it’s time to instigate a strict plan that prevents the risk of personal injury.

  • C – Competencies – Everyone working at height must have the relevant skills, knowledge, ability, and experience to do so. This is called worker competency.

  • T – Training – Although not everyone is required to work at height and not all cleaning jobs require this, it is best-practice to ensure every member of staff who may be called upon for support is properly trained.

  • P – PPE – There’s nothing more important to your health and safety when working at height than utilising the right PPE and safety equipment.

  • L – Look – Look at your equipment before each use. Is it still in good shape? Is there any wear and tear? Is it safe to use? Inspecting each item is vital.

  • A – Actionable – You must have an easy-to-action, well drilled emergency evacuation and rescue plan ready to go.

  • A – Assure – Good awareness of the relevant legislation to mitigate against any risks is essential. If you or your employees are working at height, you need to assure regulatory compliance.

  • N – Never – Never get complacent. Train, train and then train again. Training gives confidence, increases knowledge, and ensures you can clean windows on high rise buildings as safely as possible.

Safe window cleaning

It’s a plain truth that working at height represents one of the greatest risks for those on-site. The STRICTPLAAN model provides a strong framework for high rise window cleaners to follow to ensure they get home safely.

Leave no stone un-turned. Be sure to understand the risks; conduct proper planning; implement effective training, procure high-quality PPE and safety equipment; and comply with all relevant legislation. Not doing so leaves window cleaners at risk of serious injury.

To download the full STRICTPLAAN height safety guide, visit: www.leachs.com/windowcleaning 

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