It was a high-rise building in Kolkata… A man on ropes is busy cleaning the windows. A closer look… the ropes he was hanging on were damaged and were from the ones discarded as non-usable; cloth tied across his shoulder and waist formed his safety harness; the karabiners had no twist locks or screw-gate closures; the descender/fall arrest ascension was missing; the old paint bucket hanging on the descending rope & a squeegee were his cleaning tools…
“This was a frightening sight. Besides the unsafe conditions he was working in, the operator hanging up there did not have anyone around to supervise or offer a helping hand in case of an emergency. It was a plunge to death in waiting,” laments Ashok Khemlani, Managing Director, Technoclean India Pvt Ltd.
In more than 99 out of 100 cases of death caused while working at heights have been due to inadequate or no safety apparatus on the operator. “The question here is not just who is responsible for these accidents but the fact that human life is important and it is necessary for each and every company to put an effort to ensure safe working environment, especially for people working on heights.”
Take surface cleaning for example, faulty cleaning equipment can damage a few square feet of flooring or fail to achieve the desired cleaning results. In this case, all these can be replaced, but a small fault in any façade equipment or safety apparatus cannot replace the life of the operator in case of an accident.
“This is a question of human life and there are no laws for the safety of the façade cleaner! After a major incident, the whole nation arose to protect woman. Is everyone waiting for a major incident to take place to get the façade cleaners their right to live? So many façade cleaners fall to their death each day. There is no survey conducted to document these deaths.”
The Bureau of Indian Standards has guidelines laid down even for speed breaker as a road safety measure but sadly not for human safety at heights. “In the absence of proper laws for cleaning or façade maintenance, many tenders released have the tagline ‘the contractor must follow British Standards’. The contractor too claims ‘we abide by British Standards’. Ironically, in many cases neither the ‘tenderers’ nor the contractors may have actually read the ‘British Standards’, leave alone follow them.
“Unfortunately, be it the quality of floor cleaning or façade cleaning, the services have degenerated and touched the nadir. They have to rise from the rock bottom and that is possible only with mandatory rules and laws and awareness.”
It is not that every façade access or cleaning company is prepared to bear the costs of maintaining safety standards. “It costs money to do the medical tests on the people working on heights, it costs money to train them, it costs money to invest in the safety apparatus… it costs money to retain standards… standards that will save innocent lives.”
Contractors are picking up anybody, giving them minimum training and a uniform and putting them up the wall. Safety can be assured only with standards. “Only a movement can bring about respect to the cleaning profession, be it floor cleaning or façade cleaning.”
No employee should be put on the field without proper training specifically designed for the work the employee has been engaged for. Basic training involves not just the operations of the equipment but also taking care of them, besides the use of various sizes and kinds of squeegees for various kinds of facades. “Facades can be of glass, aluminium, tiles, etc. Each of them has to be cleaned with the right chemicals and tools.” This is to ensure that the employee cleans and at the same time does not cause damage to the client’s property.
Rope access can be safe, if the norms are adhered to. It is important that there are two ropes which include a rope to descent and the other one just as a safety rope. The use of rope and the use of descending windows should be restricted to 200hrs. Besides, ropes should be suspended from the safety eye bolts and which should also have the capacity of taking a load of one tonne. Today, rope access cleaners in India have grown to probably 650, of which more than 450 are working with pioneers and balance 200 are divided in 20 odd other companies. Rope access should follow all other practices like keeping ready an operative who are aware of how to bring down a person who may be stuck midway due to heat or any other reason. It is customary to have a stand-by when two operatives are coming down on the façade. It is also customary to have minimum two operators come down together. One has to also worry about the kind of body harness that they are wearing. It should be friendly to their legs. If this is not taken care of over the period, it can affect the efficiency of their lower limbs.
“The facades of the buildings in India have gone through tremendous change in the last two decades. Since the first of buildings with glass and metal facades nearly 20 years back, the facades today come in large variety including sloping, reverse sloping, spherical, waves, etc. Besides, the heights of the buildings are going up to very high levels in metro cities. Each of the metro cities is announcing buildings that are 50-100 floors each come in the range of super high rise.
At the same time, facade access systems have come in acceptance in almost all types of buildings including IT parks, hotels, tall residential, commercial, low rise buildings, etc. One can dare to say that all well known builders and industry has accepted the need for facade access systems and are providing complete range from very economical minimal systems to sophisticated state of art facade systems.
There is also realization that the high rise buildings even if they are residential where the windows are not fixed, do require facade systems, because of high rise levels of wind prevailing at higher floors. Nearly, all tall structures beyond 30 floors have now facade systems.
Cleaning of facades is best handled when there is proper cradle system on the building especially for the system provided is such that it reaches every corner of the building. The speed of cleaning, the ease of cleaning and the look are highly professional. At the same time, in tall structures, it is essential that there is restrain system so that the cradle is restrained from sway due to the wind at high floors.
In case of low rise building, where the total facade area is not very high and the height is below 100ft, if required, the facade can be cleaned by rope access or absaline. In origin, the rope access came into being, because, certain type of facades, one cannot do with the cradle system. In such cases, rope access was the only solution. When introduced in India, by Technoclean, this was a new technique even in developed countries of Europe. The rope access does reduce the output and does reduce capital cost. However, it becomes necessary for the building owners to take precautions to avoid accidents which have been plenty in India.