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New window cleaning standard impacts property managers

Recently, the American National Standards Institute formally approved the I-14.1 Standard for window cleaning. The standard is the result of nearly five years of hard work by a collection of window cleaning contractors, labor unions, the International Window Cleaners Association, BOMA International and industry experts.

Two entities that are immediately affected by the new standard are building owners and window cleaners. Building owners are required to provide a safe building from which to work, and window cleaners are required to ply their trade within specific safe guidelines.

The standard is 45 pages in length and contains a thorough collection of safety guidelines and equipment design criteria. The hot topics for building owners and managers center around four areas: roof anchors, "the plan of service," rope descent systems (or RDS), and fall protection.

Roof Anchors

Currently, adequate roof anchors -- which provide fall protection and/or structural support for the actual window cleaning operation -- do not exist on a large percentage of buildings in the United States because many architects did not fully appreciate their importance. But those portions of a tall building whose windows cannot be reached from the ground must rely on roof suspension apparatus and techniques such as davit/sockets, counterweighted outriggers, parapet clamps or chairing -- virtually all of which require roof anchors (davits and sockets are the only exceptions).

Under the new standard, buildings without roof anchors must be retrofitted with roof anchors, and anchors must be designed by a registered professional engineer and inspected annually by a qualified person. As dramatic as that sounds, many buildings without anchors have other structural elements already existing on their roofs that can be easily converted to "certified roof anchors" with the assistance of a structural engineer. Vertical columns for roof screens or structural framing supporting mechanical equipment, for example, are likely candidates for roof anchors.

When roof anchors are nonexistent or exist in insufficient quantities around the periphery of the roof, window cleaners tend to improvise. The most common mistake made by the worker is the creation of a horizontal lifeline on the roof by stringing a fiber or wire rope line between two anchor points on the roof and then securing their vertical lifelines at various points along the length of the horizontal line. This application is extremely unreliable and is, in fact, quite dangerous unless designed by an experienced engineer.

The Plan of Service

Many window-cleaning contractors feel the need for a competitive edge when bidding for window-cleaning contracts. Part of their strategy may be creative approaches to accessing a building's fa?ade -- using rolling outriggers that are not tied back, for example, or establishing roof anchor points that fleet ropes across the roof at obtuse angles.

To ensure that this doesn't happen, the Plan of Service, as envisioned by I-14.1, is a well thought out document that becomes a part of the building's design for its window cleaning. The plan may be prepared by a window-cleaning contractor, consultant or an engineer (California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that a plan be prepared by a licensed entity), and it must specify how each worker's independent fall protection tieback should be placed for each individual descent. Protection for the public below is another consideration that must be included within the plan.

Rope Descent Systems

In some U.S. cities, the most common high-rise facade access technique employed by window cleaners is by RDS, also referred to as chairing, Bosuns chair work, or Genie (a brand name for a particular descender). Regardless of the euphemism used, the system employs a tieback anchor or suspension apparatus on the roof; fiber lines; a seat board to which the rope friction descender is attached; and independent vertical lifelines that are tied back on the roof.

Although RDS is the predominant technique for accessing high-rise facades, adequate roof support provisions are often not present, forcing window cleaners to improvise. While the new I-14.1 allows descents of up to 300 feet, current regulations in New York City forbid RDS altogether and California's OSHA restricts descents to no more than 130 feet (except for new construction, where they are prohibited).

The I-14.1 also specifies that when employing rope descents exceeding 130 feet, wind stabilization must be utilized. Many window cleaners like to use suction cups to achieve wind stabilization, but it must be noted that any wind load on the worker and his vertical lines will be imposed on the facade surface (usually the window) through the suction cup, and continued tugging on the glass via the suction cups has been known to damage windows' watertight seals.

If the window-cleaning contractor for your building employs rope descent, it is critical that sufficient roof anchors exist and are identified on the plan.

Fall Protection

Workers exposed to a fall must be provided some form of barrier protection such as a guardrail or parapet, or they must have roof anchors or other approved means to which the worker can secure his personal fall protection gear. Workers often don't fully appreciate factors of safety and believe that if their makeshift fall protection roof anchor (a flimsy bracket supporting a small air conditioning duct, for example) has never failed, then it must be okay.

They fail to realize that a fall protection anchor of like strength has never been tested because they have not fallen and thus have not needed to rely on this backup support. Had they fallen, and consequently tested the bracket-turned-roof anchor, it would have failed and they would probably not be alive to try it again.

The new ANSI/IWCA I-14.1 Standard assigns certain responsibilities for building owners, managers and window cleaning contractors that were previously cited through civil litigation after window cleaner accidents. With a little rework and planning, we can all offer a safer work place for window cleaners.

Craig S. Caulkins, vice chairman of the I-14.1 Standards committee, is a registered professional engineer (civil/structural) specializing in the application of commercial window cleaning and exterior maintenance. He can be reached at (714) 692-2700.

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