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Window cleaners warned about overhead powerlines

Published 30th January, 2023 by Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Chairman and Safety Officer
Federation of Window Cleaners
The British Cleaning Council

Window cleaners warned about overhead powerlines

Andrew Lee, chairman and safety officer, Federation of Window Cleaners, reports.

Every year, people are killed or seriously injured when they come into contact with high voltage electricity. This risk is a particular concern for window cleaners who use either water-fed or telescopic poles, and indeed in some cases aluminium portable ladders, because of the danger of these coming into contact with overhead power lines while working. A life can be lost within seconds if this happens, there are rarely second chances.

During 2021, there were two fatalities in the window cleaning sector after colleagues working on domestic properties and using water-fed poles came into contact with live electric cables. I urge my colleagues in the industry to be aware of the dangers, familiarise themselves with the issue and get into the habit of following some safety measures.

Overhead power lines run across the countryside, supplying local communities with power. Depending on the voltage, the wires will be at different heights above the ground. Live equipment can be on poles fitted as low as 4.3 metres (14 feet). Power lines are often uninsulated. Power lines can carry up to 400,000 volts but even the 230 volts in domestic supply lines can be fatal or injure.

An overhead line does not have to be touched to cause serious injury or death as electricity can jump, or arc, across small gaps, so just going close to a live overhead line can result in a flashover that may kill. Never assume that wooden poles only carry telephone wires, they can also carry electricity wires too.

Electricity can bypass wood, plastic or rubber, if it is damp or dirty, and cause fatal shocks. Don't rely on gloves or rubber boots to protect you.

A momentary distraction, perhaps being tired from working long hours or just rushing to get the job done, can all easily result in a serious accident, causing a fatality or life-changing/serious injury, leaving you out of work and with no income for the long-term.

Taking time to plan, being prepared and focusing on the way you work can help keep you safe. You should:

  • Always look up and look out for the presence of overhead lines first. Watch out for yellow ‘Danger of Death’ warning signs.
  • Before setting up any water-fed poles consider and plan the safe height clearance of your equipment.
  • Identify where the overhead lines are. If there are overhead power lines present, you may want to consider the use of electrically tested insulated poles.
  • Attention must be given to safe height clearance throughout your time on site, including whenever you reposition your equipment, through to the dismantling and removal at the end of the day.
  • Make sure all employees on site can identify where the overhead power lines are and that they fully understand the risks and the appropriate emergency procedure.
  • Is your water-fed pole in danger of touching or getting too close to overhead lines? Keep observing as you proceed with your work.
  • Be aware too of any obstacles that may present trip hazards such as plant pots, uneven floor levels, varying levels of ground, kerbs etc that are located in the work area.

If there is an accident:

  • Stop work immediately.
  • Notify the distribution network operator which runs the local power network.
  • Call the emergency services if anyone is injured or there is a fire.
  • Never go near or touch any broken or fallen powerlines or any equipment still in contact with an overhead power line.

I encourage window cleaners to read some of the safety information available, including leaflets on the FWC, Health and Safety Executive and UK Power Networks websites. Please consider signing up for one of the safety courses we run, which are accredited by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, and cover these issues and much more.

Find out more on our website and, above all, stay safe!

About the contributor

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Chairman and Safety Officer

Federation of Window Cleaners

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