The Spidermen of Beijing


Today our windows were cleaned. It is great to look out at the city through sparkling clean glass. But I must admit I was somewhat anxious about the chaps who were doing the window-cleaning.

We live on the 10th floor of a 24 storey building, and today all the windows of the whole building were cleaned between 9am-6pm.  As the building is glass clad, that really translates into cleaning the entire outer surface of the building.

For example, our small apartment has one bedroom with a large east facing window which is glass from floor to ceiling. The main room of the apartment is like a long shoe box with one of the short ends being two floor-to-ceiling panels of glass, and the whole of one long side being 6 huge glass floor-to-ceiling panels.  In fact one of the reasons that I like the apartment is that it lets in so much natural light. However that means that there is a helluva lot of glass to clean, and the apartments below and above are identical. Every floor has about 10 apartments, some larger than ours and some, having a different layout, being smaller. You get the picture – a LOT of glass.

I was sitting at my laptop this morning when suddenly a phalanx of window cleaners descended on me – and when I say descended, I mean it literally.  There were two on the short side of the room and five on the long side.  Each was equipped with a large plastic bucket of soapy water (most buckets seemed to be recycled industrial paint containers) a moppy thing and a squeegee, and they went about their business most efficiently.

But what put my heart in my mouth is that all of them were abseiling down the building on single ropes.  They did not have safety harnesses, none of them had hard-hats or any form of protective clothing, they were just hooked onto ropes in the most basic fashion.  Each of them did have a suction-cup thingy on a separate bit of rope attached to their waists which they could throw against the wet glass and it would glom on and they could use this to pull themselves closer to the glass if they wanted to.

The speed they worked at was fantastic, and they were chatting away between themselves nineteen to the dozen. One guy even had a long mobile phone call whilst hovering in mid-air.

When I went down to the ground floor and ventured outside, I discovered that there were no safety nets,  and nothing to prevent them from hurtling down and hitting any unwitting pedestrian, not to mention killing themselves.  I asked the duty concierge, who seemed singularly unfazed by all this,  if this was usual and was told that all high-rise buildings in Beijing (and probably in Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing etc etc) have their windows cleaned in exactly the same way – and some of those buildings are 80-120 storeys high.  Apparently our building is a mere piffle.

Now, I must confess that for ages I have railed against the dread hand of the Department of Health & Safety in the UK, moaning that they lack commonsense and go OTT about stupid things like schoolboys  playing conkers in the playground, and though I still feel all that overkill (not the most apposite word but you get my drift) is true,  I do appreciate the necessity of having quite specific H&S regulations.  These spidermen have nobody looking out for them, they are probably paid a pittance and I doubt they are insured.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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