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NYC Window Washer Deaths Underscore Job Hazards!


By VERENA DOBNIK
Associated Press Writer
August 6, 2008
Window Washer NEW YORK - For more than two decades, Andrew Horton was content with his job as a window washer.

But one day, hanging off the 86th floor of the Empire State Building with just a belt tying him to a window, "I did say to myself, there's got to be a better way to make a living!"

Horton, 52, now runs New York City's main safety training program for window washers, teaching them how to reduce the risks of an occupation that has claimed three lives in the city in the past year alone.

The latest accident happened after midnight Tuesday. Two men, working in a cherry picker off the World Financial Center, tumbled to their deaths when the machine tipped over and fell 40 feet to the ground, police said.

Police identified the men as Robert Fabrizio, 35, of Las Vegas, Nev., and Garin Fabrizio, 37, of Milford, Pa.

A woman who answered the telephone at Total Building Services of Elizabeth, N.J., said one was employed by Total and the other was his cousin, a retired window washer.

New York has about 600 unionized window washers, members of Local 32BJ of the Services Employees International Union. It's the largest group of unionized window washers in the country. Another 800 or so work independently and without formal safety training, earning far less.

Of the thousands of window washers across the country, industry experts say about 95 percent are non-union workers who on average make about $7 an hour.

Safety standards vary by state, with New York having among the strictest regulations.

Although the federal Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't have specific regulations that apply only to window washers, the agency enforces general industry safety standards for equipment and employee training, according to OSHA spokeswoman Sharon Worthy in Washington.

In New York, commercial window washers are protected by a special labor law that makes a building owner liable for injuries due to defective equipment such as a safety harness or scaffold.

"If the job is not safe, you have the right not to work," said Mark E. Seitelman, a lawyer who represents a window washer injured when his arm got lodged in a hole in the scaffolding on a skyscraper last year.

In New York, unionized window washers must learn basic regulations, and also how the equipment works, whether it's a ladder, scaffold or belt anchored to a window.

Apprentices earn a $35,000 salary for the first two years in the union safety program, but can make up to $70,000 a year after earning journeyman status.

Horton says many of New York's non-union workers are immigrants who get paid off the books in cash. He described a similar situation elsewhere in the country, with families sharing jobs among themselves and their friends.

In California, workers are often offered piece work, for example, washing 20 windows at $3 apiece. "It's cash business, and they don't ask for qualifications," Horton said. "If you have a bucket and a belt, that's all it takes."

The largest unionized window-washing company in Chicago, Corporate Cleaning Services, says that about 80 percent of its 66 workers come from one tiny town in Mexico, with window-washing jobs passing from one generation of men to the next.

Among New York's union workers, there has not been a lethal accident in 25 years, according to the union. During that time, non-union workers have had about 200 accidents, including more than 70 fatalities, said union spokesman Matt Nerzig.

In December 2007, a team of two brothers plummeted from their scaffold 47 stories above an Upper East Side street. One died, while the other miraculously survived the fall and is now recovering.

An OSHA investigator determined that a device that holds a lifeline for workers on the scaffold was improperly installed and cited the company that operated the scaffold for workplace safety violations.

Horton knows what it feels like to dangle from the side of the skyscraper, having done so for more than two decades before calling it quits two years ago to lead the safety training program.

"Safety is our number one topic," Horton said. "Window cleaners do not get a second chance."

 


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