Cleaning London’s diverse skyline

17th of February 2017
Cleaning London’s diverse skyline

Cleaning at height is dangerous work requiring skill, planning and a head for heights. Chris Parkes, operations director at cleaning services specialist Julius Rutherfoord, highlights the unique challenges of cleaning the London's skyline.

London is a city which is changing all the time, including a constant flow of new additions to its skyline. Second only to Paris in terms of European skyscrapers, the city has more tall buildings than anywhere else in the UK.

Recent high-rise developments demonstrate how dramatically the city vista has changed in the last five years alone. These include the incredible 95-storey Shard skyscraper in Southwark and the 38-storey 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper, aptly nick-named the ‘walkie-talkie', across the river Thames.

And there is more to come - the enormous Battersea Power Station redevelopment is one of the most exciting projects in the UK today. It will see the complete transformation of the iconic decommissioned power station on the south bank of the Thames, as well as the surrounding area, which will be redeveloped into a new London district, including residential and commercial projects.

Just as London's developers never stand still, nor do the cleaning and property maintenance contractors working hard to keep the city's façades clean and safe. This makes the city a high-risk place for its window cleaners, but at the same time a crucible for best practice when it comes to cleaning at height.

Dangerous work

Unfortunately, there are many examples within the cleaning industry of accidents involving working on height, many of them avoidable. At the start of 2016, a window cleaner died after falling from the top floor of a five-storey house in Islington, north London. It is unclear what caused this awful accident, but a handle appeared to be missing from a window. Compounding this tragedy was the heart-breaking fact that this death could have been prevented had the window cleaner simply been wearing a harness.

Any accident, fatal or otherwise, is one too many, and brings into sharp focus the critical need for training and the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) for all operatives. Whether working on stepladders, long ladders, suspended cleaning cradles, abseil cleaning or using a mobile elevated work platform, any form of cleaning at height requires training, planning and supervision.

Work at height regulations from the Health & Safety Executive place duties on employers, the self-employed, and any person who controls the work of others (for example facilities managers or building owners who may contract others) to ensure the safety and wellbeing of anyone involved in a project that involves working at height.

These regulations stipulate that all work at height is properly planned and organised and that those involved in the work are competent. The risks must also be assessed, including properly controlling the hazards from fragile surfaces such as glass, and appropriate work equipment must be selected and used at all times.

This equipment must also be properly inspected and maintained throughout its working life. Ideally, health and safety regulations would see contractors avoid working at height wherever possible, but where this is necessary they must take measures to prevent falls and to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall should the worst happen.

Best practice

At Julius Rutherfoord, we work with our trusted window cleaning partners to ensure that best practice is implemented at every stage of a project. A window cleaning contractor must be versatile, and able to offer a site-specific solution to each façade being cleaned. Before starting any job, the best cleaning contractors will go through rigorous health and safety checks.

Of course, window cleaning isn't the only cleaning work that takes place at height - brickwork and masonry repairs, as well as gutter cleaning, also demand the same rigorous health and safety precautions. The best contractors will produce high quality results no matter how large or high the surface.

The area that needs to be cleaned should be carefully researched and audited before any cleaning is undertaken, to make sure the right techniques are used. A reputable contractor will also have clear emergency evacuation procedures in place should the need arise when cleaning at height. Environmental, quality and occupational health and safety management systems used by the contract cleaner should also be independently assessed. This commitment gives facilities managers confidence in the quality, safety and reliability of the cleaning.

Continuous training

As well as induction training and harness safety instructions, a programme of continuous training is essential to keep all operatives up-to-date with the latest safety innovations and best practice. Continuous training will also improve the productivity of cleaning operatives. It is highly advantageous if training can be provided close to the workplace, particularly in large and very busy cities like London. In this way, training and induction is made as accessible as possible for operatives.

Only those who are competent to carry out work at height may be permitted to do so. Simple mistakes, like overloading or overreaching ladders, can have the same fatal consequences as gross errors, like an unsafe anchor point for abseiling ropes or cleaning cradles. At the same time, all operatives must have the correct PPE, including harnesses, and helmets to protect them from falling objects.

Supervision is another factor that should not be overlooked. London is a 24-hour city, and cleaning teams as well as their supervisors must be flexible and able to make themselves available out-of-hours to get the job done. And while cleaning operatives can work in most weather conditions, strong winds can quickly make it too dangerous to clean at height.

It is important that cleaning operatives and supervisors recognise that they can call a project off if they deem it too dangerous due to weather conditions, or if they think the tools or equipment provided are not suitable.

The culture of a company is very important in this respect. It is vital that cleaning operatives feel confident that if they have any concerns about a project that involves work at height, they can communicate this to their employer or contractor. They must be secure in the knowledge that those in charge will work to alleviate the issues, instead of side-lining the operatives for future projects.

Local knowledge

In London, local presence and local knowledge are vital. Special permissions are required from London's councils for exterior work including window cleaning, for instance, while getting around London takes time, making cleaners with facilities close to the heart of the city much more practical and accessible.

London's iconic and ever changing skyline accurately reflects the city's combination of the historic and cutting edge, and the diversity of those who live there. No two streets are the same, and each building presents different cleaning challenges to protect it from the pollution, damage from pests, and other perils inherent in city life.

Welcoming façades and clear windows are important both for the maintenance of a building, and the perceptions of those who visit and work there. But just as important is the safety and well-being of any operative cleaning that building.


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