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December 26, 2014
Window washers hang by a thread; Make sure they know the ropes

On November 12, 2014, America was captivated in the middle of the day by the spectacle of two men trapped on a suspended scaffold, tilted at a perilous angle, on the outside of the newly opened One World Trade Center building in New York. The men, Juan Lizama, 41, and Juan Lopez, 33, had been washing the building's windows from a suspended scaffold when a brake mechanism malfunctioned, causing one end of the scaffold to list.

Fortunately for Lizama and Lopez—and to the relief of everyone watching, from nearby buildings, from the ground, and on television—the two men were secured, the remaining ropes were capable of holding the entire scaffold, and the fire department was prepared to respond to such an emergency. Less than 2 hours after the call came in, the two men stepped from the scaffold into the building through a hole cut in one of the windows.

Background on window washing

Why train workers in window washing safety? Working on the outside of a building, above the ground, puts workers at risk. They need to know how to operate their equipment for their own safety and the safety of people below, and they need to know how to respond to emergency situations.

Basics of window washing

Some jobs require a level of danger. Flying is one example: If something goes wrong at 30,000 feet, you don't have a whole lot of options. Because of that, a great deal of diligence goes into making sure the plane (the equipment) and the pilot (the operator) are well prepared before they leave the ground--and flying is safer than driving or even taking a train.

Workers should determine wind speed using both the platform-mounted anemometer and local weather forecasts regarding wind speed.

Working from a suspended scaffold is similar: It involves a built-in, inescapable level of risk. Like pilots, you need to make sure before beginning your descent that your equipment is in perfect working order and you know how to operate it properly. Do that, and window washing can be as safe as flying.

Dangerous work. When you work from a suspended scaffold, be aware of, and know how to protect yourself from, these hazards:

  • Equipment failure. Always inspect your equipment—both your scaffold and your fall protection gear—because a failure could cost you your life. Make sure you understand the inspection and operating requirements of the equipment you are operating.
  • Weather. Winds greater than 25 miles per hour pose a life-threatening hazard, so always be aware of the wind speed. Remember that precipitation can make your working surface slick. Even if you are secured against a fatal fall, a slip can cause injury.
  • Chemical hazards. Some types of cleaning jobs may require acids or other dangerous chemicals. Make sure you understand the hazards of the chemicals you will use on any given day and you have appropriate protective gear, including chemical-resistant gloves, clothing, and eye and face protection.

Work procedures. Always follow safe work procedures:

  • Do understand your emergency procedures. Know what to do in a power failure, equipment failure, or other emergency. (For example, what if there were a building fire or a medical emergency?) Make sure you know the building's emergency escape routes and how to operate the alarm system.
  • Do protect the platform, wire ropes, and safety lines from damage caused by corrosives. If any part of the platform has been exposed to acids or other corrosive substances, wash it with a neutralizing solution.
  • Do protect the platform, aluminum-supporting members, wire ropes, and safety lines from heat-producing processes. You must permanently remove from service any wire rope or safety line contacted by a heat-producing process.
  • Do mount an anemometer on the platform before and during platform use.
  • Do locate stabilizer ties so they can pass unencumbered along the full length of the platform, and keep them at an appropriate length so they won't become entangled in rollers, hoists, or other machinery.
  • Do understand how to inspect, care for, and use your personal fall protection equipment.
  • Do not overload the platform.
  • Do not work when slippery conditions exist on the platform.
  • Do not operate the platform in winds exceeding 25 miles per hour, except to move the platform from operation to storage.
  • Do not allow tools, materials, and debris not directly related to the work in progress to accumulate on the platform.


Like flying, window washing can be a safe job, but it takes understanding the equipment, the tools, and the job being done.

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