Andy Oliver’s dangling on a rope, 15 stories up, 220 feet in the air, suspended from the top of the U.S. Bank building. But the window is four feet away — too far to reach with his squeegee. So he pushes himself away from the overhang, turning himself into a pendulum, and swings toward the building’s face. There, he finds a place to a hook in a line.
All for a clean window.
For the past year, Oliver has been a high-rise window washer for West Coast Window Cleaning, the company with contracts to clean the majority of the high-rise windows in Spokane. Their clients include the Bank of America, the Spokane Arena, Spokane International Airport and Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Cleaning those buildings — the Bank of America building is 20 stories tall — means looking down, down, down, and making the choice to step off the roof.
“I think the smaller buildings scare me more,” Oliver says. “The ground is so close.” Fall off the B of A building, and splat, you’re dead. But fall three stories and — if you’re unlucky — you’ll survive.
Oliver’s final test to be hired was a simple one. “He told me to jump off the side of a building,” Oliver says. Do that, and he’d have the job. He had a harness on, of course. But many guys balk, says fellow high rise-washer Michael Katzer. They take one look over the precipice and freeze up.
The job is more “frightening” than “dangerous.” If the harnesses are hooked up properly, window washers are safe. Even if the main line gets stuck, they can use the second rope to tie a knot around their carabiners and slide down the rope. For larger buildings, the motorized “swing stage” — a hanging scaffold platform that can lift a truck — is even safer.
But it can be a startling job. The rope may slip slightly if it’s not tied or if, Oliver suggests, the other guys feel like playing tricks on you.
If they aren’t careful, and the window is too old, they could come crashing through the glass with their feet. (It’s happened.) If they forget to let the rope down all the way to the ground while lowering themselves, they could — whoops! — free-fall the final six feet. The suction cups they use to pull themselves further to the left or right could pop off, sending them swinging back and forth.
It can be an interesting job. While cleaning at Sacred Heart, one window washer caught a glimpse of an open-chest surgery before the surgeons shut the blinds. Sometimes, the office workers on the other side of the glass they’re cleaning will press notes against the glass: “HEY THANKS FOR WASHING THE WINDOW. IT LOOKS GOOD.”
It can be an annoying job, too. Some of the skylights sag heavy with pigeon poop — sometimes nine inches deep. There are the summer days, when the glass heats up so hot steam hisses off the window. There are the winter days, when ice scrapers join the squeegees and sponges and when windshield wiper fluid is added to the bucket to prevent the mix from freezing as soon as it hits the glass. There are the blustery days, when a 25-mph gust can swing window washers across the face of a building — compelling them to scramble for a foothold to avoid being blown around the corner. (They call it quits when the wind, rain or thunder gets too bad.)
But for all that, Oliver loves the work.
“You don’t have to deal with anybody [up there in the air],” Oliver says. “It’s a unique job.”
It makes for a great conversation topic. It provides an unmatched setting for contemplation. And you can’t beat the views.