Minnesota tightens rules to reduce risks for window washers

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2012 - 9:45 PM

Three on-the-job fatalities in recent years spurred the state to strengthen regulations.

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Tony DeMaio, Matt Carlson and Jose Munoz of Columbia Building Services washed windows at the Thrivent Financial Building in June.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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State safety officials are acting to make it safer for window washers to do their jobs. It's a profession that has suffered three on-the-job deaths in Minnesota since 2009.

The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MnOSHA) said Monday that it is tightening requirements for employers in the areas of equipment inspections and training for window washers who work 14 feet or higher above ground but not on a ladder.

The new standards take effect March 1 and are designed to "reduce risks to workers and [ensure] that systems are in place to identify and control workplace hazards," said Ken Peterson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

MnOSHA has intensified window-washing worksite inspections since October 2010. In the 34 inspections since then, the agency found a lack of proper safety equipment and improper use of suspension scaffolds and lifelines at some sites.

The most recent death occurred in June, when window washer Ryan J. Shannon, 25, of Roseville, fell from the roof of an eight-story St. Louis Park apartment building, where he was working with a crew.

In September 2009, Bryan Prairie, of Plymouth, fell to his death at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Six months earlier, Jacob Jennings, 20, of Coon Rapids, fell and died washing windows in Bloomington.

Ryan Wagner, operations manager for StarBrite Cleaning Services in St. Louis Park, defended his industry as "very safe ... if you do everything right. You can train for as long as you want, but it still comes down to that person. ... They have a checklist they have to go through."

Wagner said he suspects that OSHA is "feeling pressure to do something" because of the recent deaths.

"From a company point of view, let alone personal, ... you don't want to lose somebody," said Wagner, who added that his company hasn't had an accident in its 27 years of existence. "I've been doing this for nine years, and I've never felt unsafe."

Minnesota Labor and Industry spokesman James Honerman said that Minnesota's new regulation came as a result of the three window washer deaths and a maintenance worker who fell and died in 2007 while clearing snow from the IDS building.

The new rules should help prevent further falls. "Things we found during the initial inspections is that not all employees were being afforded the right to work safely," Honerman said. "This new standard requires comprehensive written safety plans and the need to provide workers training for window washing and safety. It talks specifically about the equipment they use and how to properly use that equipment and inspect that equipment."

Honerman added that window washers are not certified or licensed in the state of Minnesota. Some labor unions and advocacy groups have pushed for a national certified training program. For now, under the new MnOSHA standards, it's the individual building owner and window cleaning contractors who must provide a written safety plan and offer window washers training. Licensing requirements for workers do not fall under OSHA's jurisdictions, Honerman said.

Staff writers Nicole Norfleet and Dee DePass contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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