Why Do We Still Have Human Window Washers?

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This content was created in partnership with Aerial Cities, a new show on Smithsonian Channel that explores America's most prominent cities from breathtaking heights. Watch the series Sundays at 8/7c.

Factory workers are being replaced by computers. Taxi drivers are being replaced by autonomous vehicles. So why is the window washing industry still going strong? You might think that building a robot to clean a skyscraper would be first on the list — wouldn't it save human lives? — but in reality, getting a robot to do a window-washer's job is nothing close to easy.

No Robot Maids Allowed

Robots have certainly tried cleaning skyscrapers. The original World Trade Center towers were equipped with one, in fact. It did a lousy job. "It was never effective," Steven Plate of the Port Authority of New York told the New York Times in 2014. "It basically didn't clean the building." Instead, it required double duty: a once-over by the mechanical system, then another pass by humans to clean what the robot hadn't. Those dangling scaffolds that hold workers hundreds of floors up are also used for a lot more than just cleaning — sometimes windows need repairs and facades need fixing, and a building owner is unlikely to invest in one mechanized system for that and another for a window-cleaning robot.

The messes aren't exactly predictable, either. There's obviously bird poop, which takes a bit more scrubbing than your run-of-the-mill dirt. And older buildings still have windows that open, and that means inhabitants can throw things. Food, for instance. "They throw s*** out of the windows all the time," window washer Ron Zeibig told The New Yorker about cleaning the Empire State Building. "One time, they threw, like, twenty gallons of strawberry preserves—and it went through ten floors, all over the windows. And it was the winter, so it froze on there and we couldn't get it off."

There's also the fact that building architecture is changing. As the Empire State Building proves, there was once a point where you could open the windows in a high-rise building. That made it easy for window washers to strap themselves into a harness, climb out the window, and hook to the side of the building from within. But in the 1950s, buildings began using glass-curtain walls, which turned each window into a fixed facade instead of an adjustable portal. That meant that windows could only be washed from the outside, which also meant that a special mechanized system had to be installed on the roof. At first, that required buildings to have flat roofs, but as the technology advanced, architects had more freedom to add slopes and curves to their designs.

Way Up Here It's Crystal Clear

That all culminates in the skyscrapers of today, many of which look more like sculptures than dwellings, and require complex window-washing rigs to match. Take Hearst Tower in New York City, for example. It looks like an origami cylinder or a finely cut jewel, and the system to clean its windows took three years and $3 million to build, according to The New Yorker — and it still has to use human window washers.

But if you're worried for the safety of those workers hanging from death-defying heights, don't be. Despite the altitude, it's a surprisingly safe gig. According to data collected by CityLab, window washers were victims of less than two dozen fatal falls annually from 2003 through 2010. And as the New York Times reports, the pay is nothing to sneeze at, reaching nearly $27 an hour plus benefits. For having skills a robot can't match, they've certainly earned it.

To admire a bird's-eye view of cities across the country, watch Aerial Cities Sundays at 8/7c on Smithsonian Channel or watch the first full episode now.

Watch Window Cleaners on the Empire State Building in 1938

Written by Ashley Hamer March 30, 2018
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