Safer window cleaning

16th of July 2018
Safer window cleaning

Window cleaning is a risky business – one that often involves working at height and handling heavy equipment. Ann Laffeaty asks manufacturers how their products are helping to make the industry safer.

Window cleaning was once a task that was almost impossible to carry out without risking life and limb. Long ladders would be set up on areas of ground that might be stony or uneven. Window cleaners would then have to climb up and perch precariously at the top of the ladder, extending their limbs in an effort to reach into corners. One false step and they could be injured, paralysed – even killed if they were to fall from a great height.

The task is generally much safer today since ladders are only permitted below certain levels. Any higher and the windows must be cleaned from a cradle or via an abseil hoist. Or better still, they can be cleaned from the ground using water-fed poles.

However, even this task has the potential to cause injuries since poles can be heavy and cumbersome and cause stress to the back and the arms. Where water is being sprayed on to windows too, there is a risk of puddles creating a slipping hazard. This can become even more dangerous in winter when the water spills may freeze and create ice patches. So, has the safety of window cleaning really improved? Or are there simply a new set of dangers for operators to contend with?

The industry continues to pose any number of risks according to IPC’s sales and business development manager Adriano Mariano. “This is because the practice often needs to be carried out at height and the ladders used may not offer the right balance,” he said. “The weight of the equipment is another issue, for sure.”

Manual equipment was once the only route to achieving a crystal clear finish on windows, he says. “Nowadays however, water-fed poles can bring effective results. Today’s window cleaning operations are safer than in the past because manufacturers are starting to build ergonomics and safety into their window cleaning equipment at the design stage - and these elements are viewed as priorities.”

Operating at height is still the most dangerous aspect of the job according to Mariano. “The specific requirements of cleaning solar panels are particularly risky,” he said. “This is due to their position,
their inclination and their particular nature which means that not every tool can clean them effectively without scratching and ruining them. For this reason a purpose-designed cleaning system needs to be chosen.”

Improve on best practice

IPC offers the Pure Water Cleaning System for outdoor cleaning incorporating water-fed poles that can reach 15-20 metres from the ground. For indoor cleaning the company offers the Cleano range of tools which allow the operator to work at heights of up to five metres without having to use a ladder or scaffold.

Customers are becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of product quality and safety, according to Mariano. And he adds that manufacturers in general are looking at innovative technology while also seeking to consolidate and improve on best practice.

“Ergonomics and safety are not just a trend, but a priority,” he said. “Simple details such as the quality of the grip on the pole can make all the difference between a sale and a rejection. A client-centric vision of business is certainly something we at IPC care about.”

The increasing number and size of glass façades in today’s buildings are heightening the risk to operators according to TG hyLIFT’s managing director Andreas Grochowiak. The company’s semi-automatic systems for cleaning windows, glass roofs, façades and claddings are designed to improve operator safety. These include the HyCleaner system which incorporates a semi-automatic rotating brush attached to the basket of an access platform.

“The operator is secured via a PSA inside the basket and he or she then controls all the movements of the access platform,” said Grochowiak. “This means there is no risk for the operator while carrying out the task.”

The company is working on new accessories which will help to further enhance operator safety. “I think high-rise window cleaning will move further towards this model in the future,” said Grochowiak.
Window cleaning is definitely safer than it used to be according to Ettore vice-president Europe Niels Ysbrandy. However, he adds that emerging technologies do not always address the safety side of the operation at first.

“For example, if you were to use telescopic poles eight hours a day, five days a week you are still liable to suffer from muscle strains and injuries similar to those you would get from going up and down ladders every day,” he said. “You have to be trained to use long telescopic poles, and manufacturers need to work closely with end users to address this.”

Ladder risk

Ettore aims to make window cleaning safer for the operator by reducing the weight of the poles and making them easier to control. “The pole shouldn’t flex too much as this makes it more difficult for the user to handle,” he said.

New from Ettore is the EZ1PRO+ which uses one-stage water filtration. This is designed for use in small-scale facilities and is said to be portable, compact and easy to operate.

The use of ladders continues to pose the greatest risk to window cleaners according to Spinaclean marketing manager Kayley Sugars. “It is estimated that there are two million ladders in daily use across the UK alone,” she said. “So it is not surprising that ladders account for 40 per cent of the workplace accidents that are investigated by health and safety authorities.”

However, she believes the use of poles poses its own safety issues. “Water-fed poles are generally constructed of carbon fibre which is conductive,” she said. “This means window cleaners need to be constantly aware of overhead cables.”

Spinaclean’s SkyVac Reach pole is made from non-conductive glass fibre to prevent this problem. “We also offer a base Protector Pole for extra safety which has a double-skin glass fibre construction that is non-conductive at up to 1,000 volts,” she said.

The company’s own water-fed poles are ‘tubeless’ as a further safety measure, according to Sugars. “In general the tubes in water-fed pole systems are positioned outside the pole which can cause snagging on buildings and compromise the handling of the pole,” she said. “The tubes on our SkyVac Reach poles are fed through the inside of the pole through a water channel inside the angle crank and then on to the jets in the brush head.“

Practices such as bending, stretching, cleaning overhead windows and using heavy tools all place a high degree of physical stress on the window cleaner according to Unger’s marketing communications specialist Stefan Kossmann.

Potential dangers

“Cleaning at height always poses potential dangers, particularly when tackling today’s sophisticated façade architecture,” he said. “Ladders are often used in these types of situations – sometimes with negative consequences. In 2016 there were nearly 23,700 reportable accidents while working with ladders where almost one in 15 accidents ended in death. The risks arise due to uneven ground and
also due to carelessness on the part of the operator.”

He adds that the window cleaner’s own technique can help to prevent injury when using water-fed poles. “It is important to avoid one-sided movements and to generate a mix of strain and relief when working methodically for a long period of time,” he said. “The pole should be included in the movement of the entire body and be guided over the window.”

Legislation evolving

Unger manufactures various window cleaning solutions developed with the safety of the operative in mind. These include the NLite Connect system which is a modular system of telescopic poles. Made from carbon fibre, the poles are said to be both strong and lightweight to enable window cleaners to keep control of the pole even at great heights and when reaching hard-to-access corners and angles.
According to Kossmann, window cleaning is generally becoming safer due to better products and evolving legislation.

“The new ladder standard DIN EN 131 has been in effect since January 2018 and this has led to the stability of ladders being improved and has resulted in enhanced safety for users,” he said. “Under the new legislation, any ladders longer than three metres need a wider base while multipurpose ladders must be equipped with an attached sliding ladder section.

“Previously, working at heights of more than seven metres required the operator to stand on ladders around five metres up – something that is now inadmissible. However, companies can continue to use their older ladder models so long as the safety of these has been proven by a risk assessment. But of course, water-fed pole systems allow operatives to safely reach working heights of up to 20 metres safely from the ground.”

Injuries still a problem

Despite the advent of water-fed poles he says window cleaning injuries remain a major problem. “Around 40 per cent of all employees in the cleaning sector suffer from pains in the back and neck area,” he said. “This can lead to downtime which results in significant costs for companies – something that is increasingly becoming a key issue.

“Investing in the health of employees and in products that provide optimum ergonomics pays off in the long run since staff downtime is minimised and costs are reduced.”

So an increasing focus on health and safety, a growing awareness of the need to reduce downtime and the development of highly sophisticated window cleaning systems have all led to huge improvements in safety in the industry. But will window cleaning ever become completely risk-free?
The risks will certainly diminish over time says Spinaclean’s Kayley Sugars.

“Window cleaners are sensible people and are fully aware that if they fall off a ladder just once they will potentially become incapable of supporting their family,” she said. “At the same time, the window cleaner’s customers will not want any accidents occurring on their property.

“So operatives will increasingly carry out the task using water-fed poles while customers will be impressed when the window cleaner turns up for the job prepared to work safety from the ground.”

IPC’s Adriano Mariano also believes that the emphasis on safety-consciousness will continue to increase. “However, there will always be people willing to opt for low-quality products to save money, or will take risks just to save time or because they have failed to consider the consequences,” he said. “So it is essential that we continue to raise awareness of the risks that these kind of practices involve.”


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