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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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Clean windows are important for a positive outlook. Or something like that.
Clean windows are important for a positive outlook. Or something like that.

Afraid of heights? This job's not for you

Thomas Ellis has been a window washer for 45 years. His father owned a window cleaning business in Milwaukee called Don’s Window Cleaning where he started working at the age of 14. 

"Back then, we’d just hang over the side of a building and wash the windows," says Ellis. "There’s a lot more to it these days. And it’s a lot safer."

Since 2002, Ellis has run operations at Al’s Window Cleaning, the company that routinely washes the windows of the U.S. Bank Center, which – with 42 floors and at 601 feet – is the tallest building in the state.

Ellis and his team clean the windows of the first two floors of the building – located at 777 E. Wisconsin Ave. – every other month. They wash all of the windows twice a year – in the summer and in the late fall. It takes three full weeks of work for two washers to clean all of the windows on all four sides of the building.

The washers are able to access the windows through a sky climber and a "stage," both of which are stored in a garage that’s on top of the building.

They don’t go out in rain or high winds. Occasionally, however, they get caught in bad weather halfway through a job which can get a little dicey. However, Ellis says he always keeps his cool.

But does he ever get vertigo?

"No, not me," he says. "Most people would have white knuckles. It’s not a job for everyone."

To ensure potential new washers aren’t acrophobic, they actually have to go out on a job at a tall building to see how they react. "Because once you're up there, you’re up there," says Ellis.

One of Ellis' best washers, however, got freaked out the first time, but asked Ellis to give him a second chance, which he did, and it never happened again.

Good window washers, according to Ellis, are not afraid of heights, but also have a strong work ethic because they are often not directly supervised. 

"And you gotta be fast," he says. "You gotta squeegee the soap off right away or you’ll get streaks."

Ellis says he uses a variety of cleaning products on windows including Dawn dish soap and ammonia.

Can washers listen to music while working? "Not when you’re on the lift," he says. "Maybe if you’re working on the ground. But it’s not recommended."

Ellis says he has never witnessed anyone fall or get seriously injured during a job, but he knows it could happen and that employees need to be extremely mindful of what they're doing.

"It’s definitely a dangerous job," he says. "I’ve seen some bruises here or there, but luckily never any deaths."

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