A high-rise window cleaner is a valuable asset, especially if he is skilled. It takes years to develop one. Normally, they do groundwork, ladders, and maybe push a roof roller for a while before they get into a bosun chair, lift, or stage scaffold. They don’t start high work on the first day. There are numerous safety classes and, in some states, certification requirements before they can hang off buildings. Finding someone willing to work hundreds of feet in the air is a challenge in itself.
Why would anyone do it? Working at the heights we do is an unnatural act for a human being. It is difficult, dangerous (if not done by the numbers), and the pay isn’t all that great. It takes a certain personality. Men and women who are otherwise quite brave, like firemen and police officers, have told me they wouldn’t do my job. And it always seems hotter and colder when you are on a roof or hanging off the side of a building. In wintertime, there is nothing to stop the wind from cutting right thru you. One company owner I know goes to climbing walls to recruit workers.
My observations do not have any scientific basis. No studies were done, no data was collected, and no tests were performed to back my conclusions. But for 40 years, I’ve trained, equipped, and led them. I have worked next to them, hired and fired them. Some have become my closest friends. So I think I know them well enough to write this article.
High-rise window cleaners have to be independent-minded. It is impossible to supervise them closely due to the nature of their work. They don’t respond well to micro-managing anyway. Their logic is that it is they who are risking their lives and getting the work done, so leave them alone and let them do it. The wise boss does just that, as long as they follow safety guidelines and get the jobs done in a timely manner.
High-rise window cleaners are self-reliant. They usually work in two-man teams, isolated on the buildings they are cleaning. So it is they who make the decisions like where to start (they try to avoid sun and wind), what equipment to use, etc. And it is they who decide what to do when things go wrong.
High-rise window cleaners are innovative. They don’t do the same thing every week. So they must have the flexibility of mind to adapt to changing situations.
High-rise window cleaners are courageous. We are not birds. Human beings have an instinctive fear of heights that must be overcome. The hardest drop they will ever do is the first one. On my first drop, my legs shook all the way down.
High-rise window cleaners are resolute. They don’t quit when things get rough. They soldier thru problems like elevators breaking down or tied up, lost roof keys, or a crucial piece of equipment disappearing. One time I showed up to do a building, and it was on fire.
High-rise window cleaners are generally not well-educated. Many didn’t graduate high school. People who have attended Yale or Dartmouth don’t do this kind of work. They come from working-class families. But that is not to say they aren’t intelligent. Most of them are quite bright. I’ve seen them come up with common sense solutions to difficult problems.
None of the characteristics I have described are carved in stone. There are all kinds in this line of work. One of my employees had a Master’s Degree in History. One characteristic common in all of them is fierce loyalty to each other. The uniqueness of their profession makes them brothers and sisters of them all. I can’t say that I liked each and every one of the high-rise window cleaners I’ve worked with, but I’ve always had the greatest admiration and respect for each and every one of them. I guess that’s because I’m one of them. ~Matt Johnson
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