How safe are New York City’s window washers?
And what happens when the window washing industry becomes automated?
Window washers work on the side of One World Trade Center in — window washing
Photo by Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images
New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, writer Ashley Fetters will be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.
Twenty-eight floors up in the new One World Trade Center, just a matter of months after the magazine I worked for had moved in, I stood transfixed alongside a few colleagues as a pair of window washers on a hanging platform sprayed and soaped our floor-to-ceiling window. As they finished up, one pressed a switch, and with a terrifying lurch and a collective involuntary noise from us, the peanut gallery, the stage descended down to the next floor.
“Shockingly analog,” one coworker muttered as the window cleaners disappeared from view.
If there’s a No. 1 source of secondhand anxiety for New Yorkers, it’s the unmistakable sight of skyscraper window washers, out in the open air, doing their jobs while suspended hundreds of feet above ground by a system of cables. On a day with even a slight breeze, it’s hard not to imagine a worst-case scenario. How often does the unthinkable … actually happen? And how is it prevented?
Window-washing is, statistically and practically speaking, much safer now than it was at the dawn of the age of skyscrapers, thanks to more sophisticated technology and practices. There are a variety of rigging systems that enable window washers to do their jobs, but the apparatus most commonly seen climbing the sides of New York’s skyscrapers is the scaffold (a long, rectangular platform that sits flush against the outside of the building) hanging down from a boom or a system of davits on the building’s roof. (On occasion, though, you might see a bosun chair, or boatswain’s chair, in use; it’s designed to carry just one person and looks sort of like a stationary bike, but suspended from a rooftop.)
As one window washer explained to The New Yorker in 2013, the side of a skyscraper makes a surprisingly peaceful workplace: Up there, away from the noisy cars and people at street level, “It’s just you and your partner. You can discuss anything, you can talk to yourself, no one’s gonna yell at you.”
Before any team is cleared to begin its duties for each day, the equipment is subject to a full hour’s worth of safety checks, as that same New Yorker story explained. The New York Department of Labor requires every window-cleaning scaffold to be inspected before any daily use to ensure ropes are not worn or deteriorated in ways that would affect their strength; that safety belts have been stored in dry places and kept away from potential damage; and that all fiber materials in use are stored in dry places out of contact with corrosive substances.
OSHA’s standards for workplaces that use rope-descent systems impose an even stricter set of regulations: Every employee who uses the RDS must be specifically trained, and every employee must be equipped with a personal “fall arrest system” or lifeline that meets a specific set of criteria. All window-washing tools have to be attached to the cart by a lanyard to prevent injury to pedestrians below, too—and before windows or window anchors are even installed in a high-rise building or skyscraper, state labor law specifies, the city commissioner must approve the building owner’s proposed plan for how the windows of the building will be cleaned. And of course, there’s no work on excessively windy or stormy days.
In hotter months, too, window-cleaning teams often stop work before the afternoon sun makes the glass too hot. These half-day shifts have gotten less common as scrutiny from regulatory bodies increased across the industry, but one window washer told The New Yorker that back in the day, it was “the greatest part-time job ever.”
But while window washers are protected by lots of safety equipment and even more safety regulations, the worst-case scenario sometimes comes to fruition anyway, whether through negligence or simple bad luck.
Earlier this month, two window washers had to be rescued from the 45th floor of a Tribeca skyscraper when wind twisted the cables of their scaffold, rendering it inoperable; when police arrived, according to the New York Daily News, the scaffold was hanging perpendicular to the building.
Last November, a similar situation arose in Midtown on the 50th floor of a building near Columbus Circle; when their scaffold got stuck, two window washers had to be pulled into the building through a window. And last August, one window-washer fell to his death from a 12th-story window to a sixth-story courtyard when the hook supporting his safety harness broke.
Window-washing, in other words, is still no coward’s way to make a living.
A generation from now, however, New Yorkers and other urban dwellers will likely worry less about the fate of city window washers. Companies like the Swiss design firm Serbot are working toward robotic solutions for window cleaning that minimize the human risk involved; Serbot’s Gekko and Clean Ant, for example, like their namesake species might imply, scamper around flat surfaces on suction grips and flip and pivot around corners on a set of long acrobatic legs, respectively.
Like the arrival of any sort of robot worker, the arrival of the robot window washer means both good things and bad; fewer risks to human safety, but fewer paying jobs for humans, too. But it’s unquestionably good news for the worried workers in offices like my old one at One World Trade—and for easily distracted officer workers. Serbot’s Gekko and Clean Ant can wash windows at five to ten times the speed a single human window washer can, meaning desk dwellers will gaze out their windows mesmerized for just a fraction of the time.
Got a weird New York anxiety that you want explored? E-mail email@example.com, and we may include it in a future column.