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