Confessions of a window cleaner

Cleaning Europe’s tallest building

Originally published in The Financial Times Magazine

If this thing keeps wobbling, I think I may have a problem. I’m standing inside a window cleaner’s cradle, swinging slowly off the top of Britain’s tallest building, the 800ft tower at Canary Wharf. A faint breeze nudges my end towards the railings, so Mark Bones, my window-cleaning colleague, invites me to lean towards the building and push us away. In doing so, I find it impossible to ignore the immense drop below. A tiny fleck of soapy water spills from my hand, and I find myself hypnotised as it spins downwards, eventually becoming too small to see. From this height, a human body would take as long as eight seconds – maybe ten – to hit the ground.

In stronger winds than this, dropping off the edge is not merely tense. It’s terrifying. And doing it in winter – at 6.00am, in pitch darkness and freezing cold – should certainly be considered less appealing than spending the morning tucked up in bed.

Initially, I concentrate on the glass directly in front of me. Thanks awfully, but I prefer not to turn round. But after a while I begin to overcome this queasiness, and can scarcely help admiring the view which extends, on this side, as far as Windsor. It’s magnificent. Looking down, past the gulls cruising hundreds of feet below, I’m suddenly inclined to applaud the makers of road-maps: the A-Z, I can confirm, is spot-on. But then my gaze falls on the cranes surrounding Canary Wharf’s two new towers – frail red stilts which rock alarmingly as they lift and drop their loads – and I start to feel shaky all over again.

In some jobs – defusing bombs, for example, or working as stuntman or test pilot – danger is not merely incidental but intrinsic. In deep sea fishing, one fisherman in 750 is killed each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive; and the next most dangerous job, with one death in 7,100, is coal mining. But the people who do these jobs have long been recognised as tough and fearless. More surprising is the death-defying nature of jobs which many of us consider – if we consider them at all – to be mundane. Car and van drivers, for instance, if they cover 25,000 miles a year, face almost as much risk of being killed at work as miners, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents: as many as 1,000 working drivers are killed each year – a quarter of all road deaths.

And window cleaners? Last September, at the Four Seasons hotel in nearby Westferry, a cradle collapsed, throwing one man out while his colleague hung on inside. On that occasion, mercifully, both men survived, but in 1998, two men were killed at Midland Bank (now HSBC) in the City. The cradle in which they were working fell 100 feet, crashing into a van parked below. Not for nothing, says Alex Rae of insurance broker Cassey Miller James, does it cost roughly ten times as much to insure window cleaners as clerical staff.

The company which has cleaned the tower – One, Canada Square, to give its proper name – since it first opened is New Century. Thanks to major contracts such as this one, six sites in Broadgate and hotels including the Dorchester and the Grosvenor, New Century turns over £5m a year. Bones, 19, joined the firm directly after leaving school. Choosing his employer was not difficult, because his father also works for New Century. (“That’s his van, down there. See the one with ladders on the roof?”) Window cleaning, it seems, is genetically pre-determined. One other family has three generations working for New Century. And three brothers on the payroll – Chad, James and Wayne Davis – appeared on Channel Four’s Big Breakfast in an item about Britain’s most dangerous jobs.

James Davis, who subsequently left New Century and now cleans windows at the Financial Times, gave me a pep talk before my stint at Canary Wharf. “It’s a dangerous job,” he agreed. “But you could [just as easily] fall off a ladder and die. You could die if you fall out of a cradle at 20ft. If you die at Canary Wharf,” he added cheerfully, “you’ll die in style. You’ll be the first, you’ll go down in history.”

Cliff Dew, New Century’s operations manager, was slightly more measured when he spoke to me beforehand. “There is no such a thing as a safe building,” he agreed. But at Canary Wharf the equipment is “state of the art”. Cunning engineers have made it impossible, for instance, for window cleaners to take short cuts. If they should try swinging the cradle round a corner of the building without first returning to the roof, the power will automatically shut off.

Additionally, New Century takes great care over training. Novice window cleaners – nicknamed “tumblers”, Bones drily informs me – must work for a month without so much as stepping off the ground, then for two months on ladders. Only after that – if they’ve passed their 18th birthday, as insurers require – can they train to use a cradle.

At 700ft, Bones gives me a window-cleaning masterclass. To begin, he demonstrates, you must “dolly up” the window (ie, rub soapy water over it with your fluffy applicator, aka “dolly”). Next, place your squeegee (like a windscreen wiper, with a brass handle) at the top of the pane and pull it across at an angle. When you reach the edge, flick your wrist to turn the squeegee through 90 degrees, and swipe in the other direction. Keep doing this till you reach the bottom. (To clean the larger panes, Bones uses nine or ten perky, switching motions with the squeegee. He can do it in three – down, up, down – but this involves too many stretches, and backbends, and would probably prove more tiring in the long run.) It is important never to release the pressure on the blade – because this will leave marks – but nor should you press too hard, because after a long shift your arms may fall off. Finish the job by rubbing excess lather from the frame with a towelling rag, then move on to the window below.

Altogether, the tower has 3,960 windows. Some, on the ground floor, are cleaned daily, but most are done once a month. (The pyramid-shaped pinnacle is cleaned once a year, by specialist abseilers.) “If we cleaned less often, that would be a money-saver,” concedes building manager, Mike Stone. “But this is the most prestigious building in London. If tenants looked out of dirty windows they would complain.”

Around 9,000 people work in the tower, for banks such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Bank of China International, Bank of New York, Bear Stearns, Citibank and Coutts; newspaper groups Trinity Mirror, The Independent and the Telegraph Group; and a few others (KPMG, the accountancy firm, has a rather awkward arrangement: four floors towards the bottom and also the 38th).

The top four floors – leased by Morgan Stanley and the Bank of New York – are narrower than the rest, so getting below the 46th involves a second shaky excursion over railings. This time, as well as pushing away from the building, I must help to fit a kind of roller skate inside mullions (enclosed tracks) on the wall. Having thus loosely attached ourselves to the tower, we feel quite a bit safer than previously – but the cradle continues to sway furiously with every small movement, like a rowing boat in mid-Pacific; and every so often – entirely unpredictably – the skates run noisily against kinks in the mullions, sending fierce jolts up my legs.

At Canary Wharf, it’s common for the wind to rush down from the roof and also upwards from the ground. Somewhere in the middle, consequently, soapy water defies gravity. Instead of dribbling down, it stays exactly where you put it; unless there’s a sudden gust from below, in which case it might run upwards, spoiling the windows you’ve already cleaned. If the wind is strong in both directions, the water might fly back in your face.

If it’s really bad, wind can actually lift the cradle, putting slack into the cables above, which carry electric current and should never be allowed to touch each other. Or if the cradle should happen to hang near the building’s edge, oscillating cables might flick round a corner and get stuck, leaving window cleaners stranded in their wonky lifeboat. For these reasons, window cleaners are encouraged to tackle interior glazing when the weather is bad. (New Century also has the contract to clean many shops and offices inside.) Indeed, under the terms of the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers might be prosecuted if they fail to transmit such encouragement with sufficient force.

But sometimes bad weather just sneaks up on the cradle operators. In his time, Bones has seen several thunderstorms hurtling towards him from distant counties. When that happens, he must race to reach the top before lightning strikes – and that’s no joke, because coming up from the lower floors in the cradle takes more than half an hour. “That’s when I wish it had some gears,” he grins.

In addition to the windows, Bones and his colleagues must clean 370,000 square feet of stainless-steel wall cladding each month. This may seem excessive, but it’s really not – because the frenetic building work nearby – Canary Wharf Group has already nearly finished a pair of similarly sized towers, fractionally to the east – throws up tremendous quantities of dust; and birds, moving their bowels in mid-air, add significantly to the problem. To stop the cleaners cutting their hands on the sharp metal edges they’re provided with heavy gloves – but only sheer talent can stop them damaging the blades of their squeegees (a nicked blade is useless.) In summer, the steel becomes hot to touch: water from the dolly rises away as steam, leaving horrible marks if the cleaners don’t move fast. In winter, the water freezes.

But apart from all that, the job is a doddle. And it offers a unique chance to observe people at work. When you’re hanging in the cradle, you can’t fail to learn something about the workers inside. At the Bank of New York, for instance, a man with a red dragon on his pinboard could reasonably be assumed to be Welsh. A briefly empty desk, Bones guesses, must belong to a woman, because fluffy animals sit on top of the computer monitor. And a couple of floors below stands a desk that “must”, for similar reasons, belong to a man: the screen-saver shows the sleek profile of some fast car.

Bones has a simple rule. “If their desk is untidy, with loads of stuff on it,” he asserts, “that means they’re not important. If it’s tidy, they’re important.” He may be right. In which case, I tentatively offer the following insight. Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph – whose 12th floor windows were respectfully soaped by this Financial Times journalist – has a huge office, with beautiful wooden furniture, and his desk is much tidier than most.

It’s routine, Davis warned me, to catch office workers surfing for porn, or playing patience, on their computers. Nor, believe it or not, is it unheard of for them to hold up score-cards indicating a window-cleaner’s sex-appeal. This does not happen to me and Bones, fortunately, but our sudden appearance does cause a couple of women, quite separately, to blush; and a heavy-set man on the 34th floor, slogging away furiously at his paperwork, looks up suddenly to find us staring at him then clutches his chest, visibly puffed up with shock. Before we drop below his level, thankfully, he’s started to laugh. And thank goodness for that: I don’t think we’re insured for causing heart attacks.

World Champion Windowcleaner

Terry Burrows, a domestic window cleaner from London, started cleaning windows 24 years ago. Since then, he was won the World Window Cleaning Championship and broken seven world records – most recently at last year’s world championships in Edinburgh.

“You get natural snooker players and natural footballers – I believe I’m a natural window cleaner. You will see things that I can do on a screen of glass that is not, like, the norm.” Specifically, Burrows can turn circles, without taking the squeegee off the glass. “It looks like I’m dislocating my wrist. Even other window cleaners say, ‘How did you do that?’ They get flummoxed by it all.”

In his garden, Burrows has set up a world championship-sized window to practice on. “If I have an event coming up I will put in serious practice for one or two months. I do it when I get home after work. I can clean it in three seconds. That’s going fast. I’ve been nicknamed the Linford Christie of window cleaners. Also, ‘Terry Turbo’.”

Thanks to his unique skills, Burrows has frequently appeared on TV. “And I’m the first man to put his name to a product. I did a deal with Vileda – have you heard of them? – they’re famous for their mops, but last year I put my name to a set of window cleaning equipment.”

2220 words. © FT Magazine