Even the most unflappable New Yorkers can be taken aback by the sight of a window washer dangling from the side of a high-rise building. Suspended by a set of cables and a scaffold that may look rickety, these workers often look vulnerable — as if a single gust of wind could cause their certain doom.

But are window washers as susceptible to danger as they appear? How often does the worst-case scenario play out? Curbed New York recently took a look at some of the safety issues that affect these high-flying workers.

Workplace protections

While window washers appear to be floating hundreds of feet in the air with minimal protections, they are actually supported by a complex system of physical and regulatory structures.

These protections include:

  • Rigging systems and inspections — Window washers use a variety of rigging systems that may include scaffolding, booms and bosun chairs (which are made to support only one person). The New York Department of Labor requires that this equipment is inspected every day before use for safety and signs of wear.
  • OSHA regulations — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict standards for work safety. All workers who use a rope-descent system must have a personal fall arrest system in the event of an equipment failure.
  • City oversight — The city commissioner must approve a building’s plans for window washing before a team of washers can hit the glass.
  • Environmental discretion — Window washers do not work on excessively windy, stormy or hot days.

Accidents still happen

All of these tools and safety standards make window washing is a much safer career choice than it was in its unregulated past. However, employees still do not have a guarantee when it comes to safety. Several high-profile incidents in the past year, including cases where scaffolding malfunctioned and workers were stranded in the air awaiting police rescue, have shed light on some of the remaining risks.

We hope that safety conditions for these brave workers will only continue to improve, and that property owners and employers will continue to make their well-being a priority.