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Safer cleaning1st of July 2011
What health and safety considerations need to be taken into account when developing a window cleaning system? In an occupation where the risks include joint pains, Legionnaire’s Disease, back pain and even – in extreme cases – death, how can equipment manufacturers help to keep window cleaners safe?
Window cleaning is perhaps one of the most dangerous cleaning jobs around. While aggressive chemicals are rarely required for window-washing tasks, the risks of falling from height are very real.
Accidents can occur when using any high-rise equipment such as cradles and platforms, but the old-fashioned ladder is probably the biggest culprit. In fact an estimated two-thirds of accidents that occur when working at height involve the use of ladders.
This situation has improved following the implementation of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 which stipulate that if a high-rise task can reasonably be carried out from the ground, then that is how it should be done.
And in fact the advent of water-fed poles has made many window cleaning tasks achievable from the ground. But water-fed poles themselves present health and safety issues, such as pole sections falling to the ground and injuring passers-by, for instance; slips and trips in icy conditions, and operator injuries to the arm, hand or back. Other more serious implications can occur if, say, a window cleaner were to hit an overhead power line with his pole or contract Legionnaire’s Disease from the water system.
But the risk of such incidents is relatively slight and it is still better to work from the ground wherever possible, according to Unger’s marketing co-ordinator Axel Droste. “There are discussions ongoing with governments and regulators, but more and more people understand it is dangerous to work at height,” he said. “However, ladders are part of the window cleaner’s equipment and they are still used by more or less every company.”
He added that attitudes to safety vary from country to country. “In most European countries ladders are widely used but poles are becoming very common in the UK,” he said. “In Holland too, there are very strict regulations even when working with poles. For example it is forbidden to clean with water-fed poles above heights of 13 metres and there are also rules stipulating for how long you can clean."
According to Droste, window cleaning equipment is becoming safer all the time. “In the past water-fed equipment was generally confined to collapsible aluminium poles, but now there are various types of carbon fibre and glass fibre options on the market.”
“These are safer, more ergonomic and more flexible since the weight is distributed evenly along the length of the pole, There is also less chance of trapping the fingers in these clamp systems than with traditional aluminium systems.”
Managing director of CAM Specialist Support Matthew Johnson agrees great strides are being made in window cleaning safety. “The practice of working at high levels has been transformed following the Work at Height Regulations 2005,” he said. “Ladders may not been outlawed, but they can only be used for short duration work. New, safer and more technically-advanced methods of working at height have been developed.”
CAM Specialist Support offers high-level window cleaning services along with site audits, risk assessments and courses on working from ladders and platforms. According to Johnson, well-maintained equipment and relevant training are vital elements in any high-level window cleaning task.
“Statistically many accidents occur while ladders are being used, but this is usually due to poor training of users and poor maintenance of equipment,” he said. “Properly-maintained ladders can constitute a safe system of work subject to a risk assessment specific to the site in question.”
He says the same is true of other high-rise window cleaning methods. “Properly-maintained cradles and suspended access equipment coupled with training of operatives minimises the risks,” he said. ”And abseiling accidents are rare due to the rigorous training of operatives and inspection of equipment competent companies undertake.
“Mobile elevated work platforms are constantly having their safety systems revised to prevent accidents, and rescue systems continue to be revised to allow for the safe rescue of an operative in difficulties.”
He applauds the advent of equipment such as water-fed poles to allow cleaning at heights up to 60 feet to be carried out from the ground. And equipment is improving all the time.
“Manufacturers are continually seeking to make water-fed poles lighter and more rigid, and there are now systems that allow internal atrium glazing to be cleaned at high level using pole systems,” he said.
But even with pole work training is required, adds Johnson. “Proper training in the use of squeegees and water-fed poles minimises the risk of Work Related Upper Limb Disorders (WRULD) injuries, and good health monitoring is required to avoid long-term chronic conditions developing.”
One organisation that keeps a weather eye on the safety of operatives is the Federation of Window Cleaners. This UK-based body offers safety training courses and regularly sets up 'Ladder Exchange' initiatives allowing employers to exchange any broken, damaged or bent ladders for a new one at a discounted price.
The federation also warns against water-fed pole related injuries. “Consideration must be given to the location of the building, terrain underfoot, weather conditions and overhead power sources,” it states. Less obvious risks include the consequences of manually handling heavy tank systems and other equipment, and the potential for contracting Legionnaires Disease.
Legionella bacteria can be found in low levels in most water sources and problems can occur when these bacteria receive the nutrients they need to multiply. Substances such as the sediment, scale, sludge and biofilms that can build up in the filters used to purify water can provide these nutrients. Legionnaires Disease can be contracted by inhaling the aerosol droplets that contain the bacteria. But the federation states any risk of contracting the disease is slight, and this risk can be reduced still further by frequently replacing filters and by keeping the system stored in a cool place when not is regular use.
OCS’s business support director Paul Thrupp agrees with the general view that falling from height is still the greatest immediate risk to the window cleaner. “However, the increased use of telescopic and water-fed poles has significantly increased challenges associated with manual handling,” he said. “There are also many other health and safety issues that must be considered such as repetitive strain and the dangers of heat stress or sun exposure.”
Proper training essential
He feels proper training is vital in order to reduce the risks of falls and of defective equipment being used. “This must also be supplemented by effective monitoring and management procedures,” he said. OCS has dramatically reduced its use of ladders and has made significant investments in telescopic and water-fed poles to allow most external cleaning tasks to be achieved from floor level, says Thrupp. “Ladders above the height of three metres are simply not used,” he said. “We also restrict the time that cleaners spend using water-fed pole systems, and our operatives take compulsory and frequent breaks to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury.”
OCS is responsible for cleaning the windows of various difficult and demanding buildings that incorporate steeply curving facades and sloping glass exteriors. “For such a wide range of complex structures we need to adopt a variety of solutions including high-level abseiling, cradle-based access equipment, mobile alloy towers and mobile elevating working platforms,” said Thrupp.
Training forms a major part of OCS’s ethos. “This is followed by monitoring and, where required, further training,” he said. “Refresher training is also provided on a frequent basis.”
According to Thrupp, OCS is actively looking for new techniques to eliminate working at height and to improve productivity. “The need to invest in work-at-height solutions cannot be avoided and this is clearly evident from the range of technologically-advanced access equipment such as equipment that can be used indoors, in restricted areas or on rough terrain, that is appearing with increased frequency.”
He added that telescopic and water-fed poles are improving and becoming increasingly ergonomic to reduce the impact of manual handling while increasing operating periods. “These have dramatically reduced the need for window cleaners to work at height, particularly on low-level buildings,” he said.
“However there is still a need for reviewing the systems employed, particularly with regard to safety access equipment as a whole. There will always be a requirement to use platforms, cradle systems or rope descent methods of some sort, and effective training is required to ensure these activities are completed safely.”