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Safety in window cleaning using portable ladders

Date posted: 20 October 2015

Window cleaning can be a dangerous job, often demanding you to work at height whilst handling cleaning equipment – with between two and seven window cleaners killed each year in Great Britain, and about 20-30 suffering major injuries as a result of falls from ladders.
The majority of accidents are the result of misuse of a portable ladder, or an error on the part of the window cleaner. Very few are caused by actual faults in the ladders.

A "portable ladder" is one that can be put up and taken down by one (or possibly two) people without requiring tools or a mechanical appliance, and that can easily be moved from one work location to another and transported between sites.

Main activities causing accidents

  • Over-reaching
  • Stepping off the ladder to work from a window sill or ledge without the use of safeguards
  • Cleaning from sloping roofs
  • Working from very long, unsecured ladders

In a bid to save money, many window cleaners and householders simply accept these risky actions as "part of the job" rather than finding a way to avoid them.

A safer approach from the outset

  • Builders and designers need to ensure there is wider provision of means to allow safe access in commercial buildings – in accordance with the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 – and that safe window cleaning is possible. New commercial and industrial buildings need to store information about safe access for window cleaning in their health and safety file.
  • Window cleaners themselves need to adopt safer methods of working.
  • Domestic householders and building owners must be aware that if they want their windows to be clean they may have to accept different methods of working, or that some windows may have to remain uncleaned if safe access is not viable.

Avoiding the risk

Wherever possible, window cleaners should avoid working from portable ladders to eliminate the risk of falls.

  • Clean windows from the inside: While the job has traditionally involved working mainly from outside a building, it is often possible to clean windows from the inside – completely avoiding the risk of falling. This method should be considered wherever the window design allows it.
  • Use long pole systems: These can sometimes help avoid risks of falling, but are not practical in all situations. There are also different risks associated with this method – such as falling poles or accidental contact with power lines. In addition, the vast quantities of water created on the ground can create slip hazards, especially if it freezes or is transported into shops with slippery flooring.
  • Use alternative means of access: Some windows may be too dangerous to reach via a portable ladder in which case cleaning will need to be done from inside, or potentially using a different access solution, usually at greater expense. Ladders should not be the only choice considered - alternatives should always be looked at first.  If safe options are not viable, the windows will have to be left uncleaned rather than risk window cleaners' lives.

Choosing suitable equipment

Your choice of access equipment will depend on:

  • the height of the windows
  • site conditions
  • the duration and extent of the work
  • the frequency of window cleaning activities

Ladders should only ever be used for light window cleaning work of short duration at lower levels.  Mobile elevating work platforms are the optimum solution in some situations, but in the case of many domestic and smaller commercial buildings ladders may be deemed the only realistic option – perhaps due to the short duration of the work and certain building features that cannot be changed. In this situation control measures are required to limit the risk posed by using ladders. These must be decided following a risk assessment, and must be in accordance with current legal requirements. The risk assessment aims to identify specific risks involved on any particular job in order to take appropriate precautions to minimise them. Since conditions can change at the same building, depending on the time of year and other factors, a risk reassessment is required before work starts at each visit. Window cleaners need to be aware what standards are expected in relation to varying conditions, as well as being responsible for recognising their own limitations.

If a portable ladder is the final choice of access equipment, bear in mind that current industry best practice states that 9 metres is the maximum length that should be used by window cleaners. Even where a lesser length is required other means of access may be more suitable in many instances, e.g. where a building has extensive glazing it may be reasonably practicable to clean it more safely from a mobile elevating work platform, or a tower scaffold system, if your site conditions allow it.

The most common risks associated with using ladders

Most hazards are caused by:

  • Falls from the ladder when stepping on / off the lower rungs
  • Falls as a result of the ladder slipping sideways at its upper resting point
  • Falls due to the ladder slipping outwards at the bottom
  • Falls because the ladder shifts due to unsuitable ground conditions
  • Falls as a result of the ladder being placed at an inappropriate angle
  • Falls due to failure of the ladder equipment itself
  • Falls or electric shock caused by an overhead electrical hazard
  • Falls as a result of poor weather conditions
  • Injury during the handling of a ladder
  • Injury to others caused by tools falling from a ladder

Ladders become a very familiar piece of equipment when they are in constant or regular use, and as a result there is the temptation to take a chance occasionally – but this is when the majority of accidents occur, and window cleaners must beware of being overconfident or complacent whenever using them.

Choosing the right ladder

Although ladder failures only cause a small minority of accidents, they do happen from time to time -- therefore it is still important to ensure they are chosen carefully. The ladder and its intended use must comply with the relevant British or European Standard.

At Bestathire, we can help you hire a ladder which is not only suitable for your task but is also the correct one to use.We also stock a wide range of protective and preventative saftey equipment including items such as stablising ladder foots which will help to minimize the risk of accidents and potential injuries from ladders. 

Deciding on the required strength

Usually, new ladders are marked according to their “safe working load” (SWL), although the classification (the way the safe working load is expressed) can vary slightly in the values given – and this has caused some confusion. By British Standards, ‘duty rating’, the classification is decided on the basis of the general conditions and probable frequency of use for each type. The European Standard uses ‘maximum static vertical load’.

British Standard ladders to either BS 2037 (Aluminium) or BS 1129 (Wood):

  • Class 1. (Industrial) duty rating 130 kg (20 stone) = maximum vertical static load 175 kg
  • Class 3. (Domestic) duty rating 95 kg (15 stone) = maximum vertical static load 125 kg

European Standard ladders to BS EN 131 (All types):

(Previous Class 2) duty rating 115 kg (18 stone) = maximum vertical static load 150 kg

Most window cleaners use ladders to BS EN 131. Domestic ladders, i.e. British Standard Class 3, are not recommended for use in commercial window cleaning ventures. They may be lighter to carry, but they are less durable and require maintenance checks and regular replacement.

Deciding on the required length

The ladder's overall length does not equal its usable length.  Allow one metre of ladder length above the highest rung you use, and avoid standing on the ladder's top three rungs. Current best practice is to stay within a maximum ladder length of 9 metres.

Maintenance

Ladders are classed as work equipment that is subject to the requirements of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER). This demands regular maintenance inspections at least every three months, as well as the daily pre-use check. Ladders should also be numbered individually and included on an equipment register to record:

  • the brand / type of ladder
  • its duty / weight / class rating
  • the date it was first used

If a defect is found there should be a reporting system to document this and ensure repair or complete removal of the ladder from use. Defects include cracked, bent or warped stiles; cracked, bent or missing rungs; loose, defective or missing feet, tie rods, brackets; and corrosion of any of the fittings.

Ladder stability

The most important factor in preventing falls from ladders is to ensure the equipment is stable whilst it is in use. Almost all falls from ladders occur because the ladder shifts unexpectedly. Securing the ladder – by tying it to a suitable point – will often prevent movement and offer the most secure set-up whenever site conditions allow it. However, this is rarely the case for window cleaning. Tying close to the top of the ladder offers the best level of safety, but to do this in window cleaning you have to climb to the top of the unsecured ladder first – and this risk may outweigh the benefits when compared to the time spent on the ladder during window cleaning. Another option to secure a ladder is to tie partway down using anchorages at a height of two metres and quick-release straps. Using proprietary stability devices or footing ladders can assist in some scenarios. Footing does not do a great deal to prevent sideways slip at the top of ladders, however, particularly those that are six metres or more in length.

There is currently no standard covering ladder stability devices, but bear in mind that in  window cleaning work, all ladders of six metres or more must be secured, while the need to secure shorter ladders will depend on a variety of factors such as the height; whether you are working alone (self-employed window cleaners can't use footed ladders, and not all locations will allow the use of stability devices); and the inherent stability of the ladder.

“Unstable conditions” – which you should seriously consider when deciding whether an unsecured ladder will offer a safe enough access solution – include adverse weather conditions (high winds, snow, ice, heavy rain, etc); uneven ground; loose, unstable or slippery surfaces; and the ladder being placed at an incorrect angle or on sloping ground (either in line with or away from the face of the building).

Ladder use

On every individual job, ladders should be secured as well as the site conditions allow. If you can not secure the ladder by tying it, and if it is not necessary or an option to use a stability device or footing, then the only safeguard will be the correct use of the ladder.
If you are using a relatively short (e.g. four metre) ladder, for example, set on dry, firm and level ground, held firmly in position by a window reveal, this will often be perfectly safe without additional securing.

Remember, however:

  • Over-reaching is a frequent cause of ladder movement and it is vital to avoid this.
  • The window cleaner should wear suitable footwear with a good grip and plenty of flexibility (e.g. clean-soled trainers); remain facing the ladder at all times when climbing up or down; and should always keep one hand on the ladder or other secure handhold and both feet on the ladder at all times.
  • Ladders should always be fitted with anti-slip feet.
  • Ladders must always be placed at the correct angle (i.e. 75 degrees or one metre out for every four metres up).
  • Ensure both stiles are in contact with the ground and the upper resting point of the ladder.
  • The top of the ladder must be resting on a surface that is strong enough to withstand the load. Never place against weak structures such as plastic gutters, infill panels or glass.
  • Ladder rungs and stiles need to be kept clean and must never be slippery.
  • Ladder accessories may boost stability and should be employed when necessary. Extensions to stiles can help ensure stability on slopes and swivelling cupped or articulated feet also help.
  • Ladders should never be left unattended.
  • Warning signs must be displayed when ladders are being used in public areas, and protection from traffic is vital.
  • Tools and equipment should always be secured when climbing up and down portable ladders, using tool belts or carriers, for example.

The main things to avoid when using a ladder

  • Never over-reach.
  • Do not straddle from a ladder to a nearby foothold.
  • Never use a defective ladder.
  • Do not hold on to the building then stretch away in the opposite direction.
  • Never place a ladder on top of unstable items such as bricks, boxes or drums just to achieve additional height.

Manual lifting and moving of ladders

To avoid physical strain injuries when handling the ladder, the window cleaner should get assistance if it is too heavy to lift alone. The length of ladder that can be safely handled by one person will depend on build, experience and age but, as a general rule of thumb, longer ladders (for cleaning above six metres) may require two people for some applications.

Cleaning windows above roofs

Window cleaners often find that the windows they need to clean are situated above short lengths of sloping roof, e.g. dormer windows or windows above front porches.

These present particular problems – such as falling through fragile roods – and should be cleaned safely from indoors whenever possible. If the design or householder does not allow this, however, some windows may have to be left uncleaned. Alternative methods of cleaning windows above roofs include the use of extension poles / pole systems and mobile elevating work platforms. Only ever use roofs for access when there is no other reasonable and practicable means of safely reaching and cleaning the windows above the roof.
If there is a safety wire system (or alternative means of fall arrest) installed, this must be used only by trained workers, and safety harnesses and lanyards must be worn and used. Such equipment also demands routine testing as outlined in HSE's guidance leaflet: “Inspecting fall arrest equipment made from webbing or rope”.

If using a ladder on flat roofs, it is also essential to use an appropriate support for ladder feet to spread the point load from the stiles and ensure stability.When carrying out domestic window cleaning above a flat roof, run through the following before stepping onto the roof:

  • Ensure the ladder is secure and cannot slide sideways. There are ladder-top stability devices available that can help achieve this security.
  • Extend the ladder at least one metre above your stepping-off point.
  • Check that the roof is wide enough to work from without standing too close to the edge, preferably a width of two metres.
  • Make yourself aware of where the roof edge is.
  • Never step back to take a look at the results of your work.

When carrying out domestic window cleaning above small areas of sloping roofs, such as over ground-floor porches or below first-floor dormers, remember the key risks include:

  • your ladder slipping sideways when you step on or off the roof;
  • you losing your balance due to a lack of handhold;
  • slips -- for various reasons, such as slipping down the roof if it is steep, wet, icy or mossy; or slipping on loose tiles / slates.

These could all result in potentially serious or fatal accidents so you should try to avoid this type of work if at all possible, or find solutions to make the work safer, such as:

  • cleaning from the inside;
  • using a roof ladder from the ground to access difficult-to-reach windows if the roof pitch is steep enough;
  • using poles / tool extensions where possible.

Window cleaning on commercial premises:

Workplace Regulations state that by law the building duty holder must provide safe access for window cleaning, although many smaller commercial premises fail to do this. Domestic householders have no such duty under criminal law - even when the properties are almost identical to a commercial equivalent.

Working alone

"Lone workers" (this does not apply to self-employed window cleaners) do not have anyone working with them in close contact, or any direct supervision. Window cleaners should not work alone:

  • in a place where there is a higher risk to their safety, such as next to a busy road or in a goods yard where vehicles could hit the ladder and cause an accident;
  • on portable ladders any longer than six metres in length

Hourly checks should be made on lone workers by colleagues on the same site, and if there is no one else there a one-hour contact system (e.g. by mobile / radio) should be established and carried out.

Training

Apart from NVQs, there are currently no nationally-recognised window cleaning qualifications, therefore new employees will need to be assessed for competence – preferably on a real job – using the following criteria:

  • daily use check
  • manual handling knowledge / abilities
  • understanding of securing and footing, as well as ground conditions
  • competence with ladder stability devices
  • appropriate use of signage or barriers where required when the base of the ladder could be knocked by pedestrians / vehicles
  • understanding of common hazards and the key "dos and don'ts" of ladder use.
  • Where gaps in knowledge or experience are identified suitable training / supervision will be required until these gaps are filled.

Supervision

The appropriate degree of supervision for work with ladders will depend on several factors such as the window cleaner's individual:

  • competence
  • experience
  • maturity
  • reliability
  • potential to look for risky work shortcuts

Supervision may involve nothing more than periodic checks that workers are following the right procedures, and the frequency of these checks will again depend on the supervisor’s assessment of the window cleaner's overall competence.

Use of Personal protective equipment (PPE)

There is no specific personal protective equipment required in the use of portable ladders except where protection is required against adverse weather conditions such as freezing temperatures or extreme heat / sunshine.

Related Articles for working with Ladders

Safe use of ladders and step ladders

How to transport your ladder securely

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