Window cleaners: Just one slip away from tragedy

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While demonstrating in downtown Minneapolis last week, Dino Crandall and his fellow window cleaners filled some of the time by viewing video of window washing accidents on their cellphones.

It may seem a macabre pastime, but Crandall said the videos have come in handy when talking to curious passersby who approach with questions.

“They know how dangerous it [window cleaning] is, but they don’t realize what the safety issues are,” he said.

Crandall, with 19 years’ experience as a window cleaner, is among about 50 members of Service Employees International Union Local 26 who have been locked out by employers since Monday night. The workers say the lockout was sparked by their requests for greater safety on the job.

Marsden Building Maintenance / Final Touch and Columbia Building Services are in negotiations with Local 26 over a new contract. The cleaners had been working without a contract for one month.

Employers plan to continue the lockout will until a new contract is signed, the union said.

Three lives lost

In the past three years, three window cleaners have been killed on the job in the Twin Cities – one in downtown Minneapolis, one in Bloomington and one in St. Louis Park.

Fidel Sanchez-Flores plunged to his death while clearing ice and snow from the Plexiglas roof of the IDS Center’s Crystal Court.

At a news conference Thursday outside the IDS, his widow and daughter said no family should have to go through what they’ve experienced.

“You don’t know what it’s like to have someone leave for work in the morning and not come home,” said his widow, Vielka Molinar-Sanchez.

“My father will never see his grandchildren grow up,” said his daughter, also named Vielka.

Suspended hundreds of feet in the air, window cleaners depend on safe equipment and proper installation to stay alive. But in recent years, that safety has come into question, said Derek Eggert, another veteran cleaner.

Problems range from support devices that are rusty and cracked to ropes that are worn beyond the legal limit. Many buildings – especially newer ones that are sheathed in glass – don’t have proper places to tie on equipment and workers must use whatever is available, even if it means tying off to stairwells or roof hatches, Eggert said.

When they took their concerns to management, they were stonewalled, Eggert, Crandall and other cleaners said.

Increasingly dangerous

Despite the clear hazards involved in window cleaning, statistics on injuries and fatalities are difficult to come by. OSHA keeps statistics on falls, but it is included with data from the construction industry.

SEIU staff said they have been unable to find specific figures on injury and death rates in the industry, but based on the number of accidents documented in the media, they believe the work has become more hazardous in recent years.

“Over the past years, the Twin Cities window cleaning industry, we believe has gotten increasingly dangerous,” said Greg Nammacher, secretary-treasurer of Local 26. “There is more and more pressure to cut corners.”

This record prompted state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, to announce at Thursday’s news conference that he will introduce legislation to improve safety in the industry.

“To have three window cleaners die in the last three years in Minneapolis alone is really a call for us to step up and take action,” Davnie said.

The window cleaning industry has proposed voluntary national standards for equipment, installation and work practices that should be made mandatory to improve safety for workers and the public, Davnie said.

His proposed legislation will “put the window washing industry’s own standards for safety into Minnesota law,” he said.