A window to the importance of design

Another maid falls to her death, making seven so far this year. There were altogether 24 in the last five years, according to John Gee, writing in the Straits Times (25 April 2012, Ensuring the safety of maids, by John Gee).

Minister of State for Community, Youth and Sports, Halimah Yacob, recently said that the cleaning of the exterior of windows should be banned (Straits Times, 23 April 2012, Halimah: Don’t let maids clean outside of windows). I find such calls problematic.

Firstly, this may be very hard to enforce, especially when most people want their windows clean.

For example,

Mr Alvin Tan, who employs a domestic worker from Myanmar, said that imposing a ban would not prevent deaths.

‘If you ban the maids, someone still has got to do the job, and the employer will then also be at risk of falling,’ said the 46-year-old senior vice-president in an oil and gas company.

— Straits Times, Straits Times, 24 April 2012, Ban cleaning window exteriors to save lives? by Goh Shi Ting and Janice Tai

Others have said there’s no need to clean; the rain will do the job. Not always. Some live in a block opposite a coffee shop, for example, and the air can be greasy at times. Dirt can stick, rain or no rain.

Secondly, cleaning windows is not the only reason why people fall from heights. There was one case this year where the worker had a laundry pole lying next to her when she was found on the ground, suggesting that she fell while putting out laundry.

John Gee in his commentary also pointed out that depression and emotional distress may be a factor. He wrote:

But there is another darker dimension to this issue of maids falling to their deaths: Some are non-accidental falls. Some women may have fallen intentionally (suicide) or were trying to climb out of windows (escape).

One common explanation was that village women unused to working in high-rises were more accident-prone.

But Hong Kong also employs many domestic workers from a similar background. Yet the numbers dying in falls there are lower than in Singapore.

In the Hong Kong case, one difference was that maids had days off by right, so no worker was likely to kill herself or die trying to escape from an employer’s residence.

Desperation might explain women falling while trying to escape from their employers’ flats. Anyone free to walk through the front door would not need to risk a climb down the outside of a tall building.

Suicides and hazardous escapes may not form most of the falls, but they almost certainly account for some.

— Straits Times, 25 April 2012, Ensuring the safety of maids, by John Gee

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of a death — I think the most recent one — when a maid fell from a fifth-floor window around 5 a.m. in the morning. Newspaper reports suggested that she might have been cleaning windows, but it makes no sense. Who would clean windows at 5 a.m.? Trying to escape from a harsh employer is a far more plausible explanation.

Bearing this caveat in mind — that cleaning windows is not the only cause of death from falling — we can still explore further what can be done.

Calling for a ban may be the kind of “hold a big stick over your head” quick fix that Singapore likes to resort to. Such responses may make us feel good that we have “done” something, but if poorly thought through, may not make much difference because it does not address all the root causes, or are impractical, or runs up against behaviour.

And this is where another statement by the above-mentioned Alvin Tan comes in. He said:

‘This has happened before. The issue is not banning this or that but turning to proper equipment that enhances safety.’

* * * * *

A friend asked me recently: Aren’t there windows whose exterior can be cleaned without having to climb out?

I said, of course there are. Let me introduce you to two possible designs. One is for sliding windows. Click the image at right for a larger version. Basically, the window comes with three frames. The outside frame is fixed to the wall; the second frame slides, but the third and innermost frame, which holds the glass pane, is pivoted. This allows the glass pane to be turned inside-out.

Another popular type of window we see in Singapore is the casement window. Even this type of window can have a variant that allows one to clean the exterior while standing inside the room.

You may need to click the image below to see its construction more clearly.

Unlike the more common casement windows, the glass panes are not hinged at their sides in the design above. The lateral edges of the glass panes slide about 150 – 200 mm as the window is opened. This gap is sufficient for an adult arm to stretch out to clean the external surface of the glass.

No doubt these windows will be more costly than existing types. But this is where state and corporate responsibility comes in. We have the Housing and Development Board building over 80 percent of the flats in Singapore. If they mandate that only these types of windows shall be used, and of just a few standard sizes, then with economies of scale the cost difference should not be great.

The solution of maids falling from cleaning windows does not come from threatening more bans and fines (typical Singapore government response), but from clever design.

* * * * *

Yet, there is the legacy problem. Hundreds of thousands of flats have already been built with windows designed for killing people. What this shows is the importance of getting the design right as early as possible. Fixing a problem retrospectively is a lot more costly than getting it right from the start. It also means the longer one delays re-examining a problem for “thinking out of the box” solutions, the longer one pays the cost of a bad design.

* * * * *

This article is not only about cleaning windows. It annoys me when I see bad design all around. It annoys me more when I see how the process of arguing for better design is obstructed, mostly the result of Singapore’s political constipation. We have essentially a government that for ideological and pride reasons, is unwilling to listen to outside voices; we have media so controlled that alternative (yes, dissenting) voices are silenced.

Nor is this only with reference to physical objects such as windows.

Underlying the taxi-shortage problem mid-afternoons for example, is a design issue. Has no one in all these decades thought of a better system?

Something that has bugged me is the way hospitals insist on immediate discharge of patients in the middle of the day. The family gets about two hours notice. “Take your parent out of here!” goes the command. First of all, people find it hard to get time off from work at such short notice; secondly, families seldom have care-givers in place for members who are still ill or partly immobile. But our hospital facilities are so short-designed that they absolutely need the extra bed, and so they become very intolerant of delayed discharges.

I have previously written about public toilets and how sometimes we see them with a low-placed urinal for little boys, but nobody thought of a similarly low wash-basin so that small boys can wash their hands. A few places have improved recently, but another problem persists: Public toilets that have eight urinals, six stalls, nine wash basins and just one hand dryer. Result? People dry their hands using toilet paper which quickly becomes a pulpy mess when moistened, and blobs of them are everywhere.

On the subject of litter, we have more and more commercial buildings leasing out take-away shops. Owners like the high rent that food shops command, but tenants hate to pay for extra dine-in space. Take-away shops meet both their bottom-line objectives. But the proliferation of take-away counters creates an environmental problem. Firstly, there is escalating use of packaging material (environmentally unfriendly), and secondly, a logarithmically rising litter problem.

Sidewalks for a hundred metres around suffer as a result. Meanwhile the privatisation of municipal sanitation services has led to a complete change in where trash bins are located. Their locations are now planned more to suit the collection drivers’ vehicular route (for efficient collection), less to suit where litter is actually generated. Huge pedestrian zones (where no vehicle can enter) are where people gather and take-away stalls proliferate. These are the same zones with no trash bins, because the sanitation company considers it too inconvenient to place them there.

And so we employ an army of low-wage cleaners from neighbouring countries . . . and this then leads to social problems and economic consequences.

23 Responses to “A window to the importance of design”

  1. 1 Poker Player 26 April 2012 at 16:15

    When we had a maid, we never let her clean the outside of our windows.

    Basic human decency, what is too dangerous for you to do is also too dangerous for your maid.

    • 2 Poker Player 26 April 2012 at 16:20

      In the US, you probably don’t need legislation for the ban. Lawyers working for contingent fees specializing in maids (and their next of kin) will solve this problem double quick. Something to be said for litigiousness.

  2. 3 ;ABC 26 April 2012 at 17:54

    In a place run by “scholars” (those awarded scholarships, not the classical type) what do you expect? The sensible answers to the problems you mention are not part of the prescrbed texts. In Japan to cater to the needs of the elderly,for example, they stopped building overhead bridges for pedestrians but shallow underdround passes. Have you ever noticed that pedestrian crossings and overhead bridges are situated far from the hospitals and not at the bus stops in front? Too bad if you are ill and cannot afford to be driven directly to the hospital building. And what about the bus shelters which are useless for shielding commuters from the tropical rainstorms?

    • 4 Webbie 26 April 2012 at 23:21

      Scholars don’t decide on the placing of crossings/overhead bridges, or what type of windows to use. This sort of decisions are left to the ground level engineers.

      • 5 ;ABC 27 April 2012 at 10:14

        Mah Bow Tan was at SBS. Scholars do start somewhere.

      • 6 Webbie 27 April 2012 at 17:41

        Yes, scholars do start somewhere but they are not going to be assigned tasks like deciding what sort of windows to use and where to put that crossing. This level of decisions are left to the “farmer” engineers or outsourced to the contractors.

  3. 7 KS Augustin (@KSAugustin) 26 April 2012 at 18:24

    In Europe, the casement windows open inwards. Eminently sensible, with just a little extra care needed regarding items on/near a windowsill. I’d say that trade-off (convenience and safety vs. no tall vases on stands next to the glass panels) is well worth it.

  4. 8 The 27 April 2012 at 10:13

    I think we can be a little bit charitable here, and not blame it on poor design. Let’s be generous and credit HDB with trying to keep cost down. This was especially so in the older estates when the early-generation flats were built with only 3 lift landings each – at the bottom, at the middle-storey and at the top floor. Since then, the government has been cognizant of the rapidly aging population and has started to install lift landings at every floor.

    So, in the same vein, the HDB should not replace all the windows with what Alex has proposed here, now that maids falling to their deaths are becoming a common occurence. In fact, this is cogent not just to address the issue of maids falling to their deaths. We also have had many cases of window frames falling down and becoming killer litter.

    So, yes, have a programme to replace all windows with these “safety” windows.

  5. 10 expatatlarge 27 April 2012 at 10:42

    a: gives maids a day off (stop slave labour). b: increase maid’s minimum pay (stop slave labour. if you can’t afford one, don’t hire one, same as the rest of the world) c: improve the window design. d: change the way Singaporeans think e: change the government

  6. 11 beAr 27 April 2012 at 10:59

    YB: do you know of any suppliers or sub-contractors that offer the first type of window (the one with the pivot-able innermost sub-frame)?

  7. 12 Duh 27 April 2012 at 16:01

    Typically PAP approach isn’t it? If something is not good for us – ban, censor or make it illegal rather than educate. Repeat the same approach to everything and Singaporeans don’t have to take responsibility for anything and don’t have to think about the pros and cons of anything. I guess that makes them easier to control via mass political propaganda like the PAP Times. Opps, I mean ST.

  8. 13 Anonymous 27 April 2012 at 18:12

    I know this requires so much thinking out of the box … but hasn’t ANYONE heard of telescopic window cleaners? Here it’s this thing here.

    People who persist in cleaning your windows — you do realise that you can actually open one pane of your window, take this pole with a sponge on one side, extend it out of the window to clean the closed pane right? And then flip the tool to wipe off the water? And then you can do the same thing for the other pane of your window?

    Given that we are stuck with a poorly designed system as alex points out, we don’t have to go to the extent of redesigning everything. We simply need to get creative with the tools we use to clean windows and also to think a bit. Are we singaporeans retarded or simply heartless?

    We live in the 21st century. The mop has been invented. And yet I have witnessed the amazing sight in countless households of domestic helpers still crawling about on all fours to clean the floor. Did I miss something? Do my fellow Singaporeans not know that mops have been invented? Or is it just that they prefer seeing another human being crawl about at their feet.

    In the same way, everyone knows that climbing out of windows to clean them is dangerous but funnily, I don’t recall the rates for Singaporeans dying while cleaning windows being anything close to the death rates for domestic helpers. Why is that? Oh wait, it’s because it’s too dangerous for Singaporeans to climb out their windows to clean them but not too dangerous for domestic workers to do this right?

    There are times when I am seriously ashamed to be Singaporean. This is one of them

  9. 14 Saycheese 27 April 2012 at 20:51

    What is a few maids’ death a year? To replace all windows in HDB cost too much is the corporatist’s view.


  10. 15 kinjioleaf 27 April 2012 at 21:06

    Another alternative is to invest in cleaning tools such as wipers/brush with extended arms or those with magnets. However, some lamented that these are not as effective as it couldn’t wipe hard stains. My thoughts – do one need the windows to be spick and span?

  11. 16 SG Girl 28 April 2012 at 00:08

    When I clean the exterior of the glass panes, I’ll slide the grills to block my body. The areas that my arm couldn’t reach, I’ll use tools suggested by Anonymous 18:12 or use the magic clean stick and attached the cloth over it to clean. Pretty safe.

    Once a year, I’ll engage part time cleaners to do spring cleaning and I usually ask them not to clean the exterior of the windows. But these cleaners (who are also housewives) will still do it without endangering themselves by using the same methods as me.

    Employers who want maids to clean the exterior of the windows, do they train their maids properly? Training means actually doing it to show the maids the right method. Assuming if they get their teenage children to do the job, would they not want their children to learn the correct (safe) way before allowing them to do it? Afterall, maids are also some other mothers’ daughters.

  12. 17 Boxed-In 28 April 2012 at 16:12

    Yes, use the pole, use any tool but tie it to your arm so that it won’t drop off to the ground. Come on Singaporeans, use your brains. Ban cleaning the exterior of the windows? How funny and ridiculous and that coming from a Minister !

  13. 18 Amaryllis 30 April 2012 at 10:39

    Agreed with the main points. I haven’t followed the case where the maid fell out of the window at 5 am. But why did you state that it was more plausible that she was “trying to escape from a harsh employer”? We don’t know that for sure, and if indeed she was trying to escape anything, there could be a whole host of plausible explanations, not only a “harsh employer”.

    Point is, we don’t know why she did what she did at 5 am, and your statement that it could be due to a harsh employer, seems a tad bit presumptuous.

    • 19 Poker Player 30 April 2012 at 17:41

      But less “presumptuous” than the newspapers…

      “Newspaper reports suggested that she might have been cleaning windows”

  14. 20 jeffcwwong 1 May 2012 at 09:55

    I think we need IKEA designers to run SIngapore. One of the BEST things about IKEA design is that while its pieces are largely simple, they are effective for the need. I think something lost in Singapore is that design and engineering needs to be based on the problem of human behaviour. I think the current groupthink in Singapore government remains centrally on how one can engineer human behaviour, rather how one can engineer AROUND and FOR human behaviour. The key question in the problem posed above isnt “We must stop maids from cleaning outside” – it’s “How can we design windows so its safe to clean?”, Much like the other issues pointed out by Alex we’ve put priorities on the wrong question.

    • 21 tan a 1 May 2012 at 18:08

      Face the fact that few hundred thousands windows or millons (?) have already been built and no way is the authority going to change or modify the windows to make it safer for cleaning. While we can take our own sweet time to come up with a safer windows, many more maids are going to die while we are busying debating a new safer window. The key question should be “How to stop maid from dying while cleaning the windows”. Very simple. Make the farking employers responsible for her death.

  15. 22 tan a 1 May 2012 at 13:15

    WTF is MOM doing other than coming up with more trainings? Just make the farking employers criminally responsible, you will find no more maid fall due to accidents while cleaning.

    PS: I used to have maids for ten years but I always ordered the maid NOT to clean the windows.

  16. 23 Order me NOW! 15 May 2012 at 14:56

    “I used to have maids for ten years but I always ordered the maid NOT to clean the windows.”

    Yes, Ma’am!

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