The most dangerous jobs

By Katy Nielsen

Towering 200 feet above the pavement, strapped into harnesses, equipped with cleaning supplies and climbing gear, window washers squeegee off the glass of sky scrapers. Dangerous jobs are similar to extreme sports like mountain climbing because of the physical and mental pressures involved, and spring is the time of year when these jobs are in high demand.

Tree care specialists, window washers and aerial lift specialists—people who move heavy equipment up to high locations—work some of the most dangerous jobs in the world at rates as low as $20 to $25 an hour.  These workers risk their lives to trim trees, clean windows and set up venues.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s most recent 2009 report, loggers, who have similar working conditions to arborists, have a fatality rate of 62 per 100,000 workers. Logging ranks as the second most dangerous job behind commercial fishing.

“It’s not hard to come right off if you lose your balance,” said Aaron Garcia, 25, certified aerial rigger who lives in Sarasota, Fla. “You’re sitting on something that’s half the size of a chair, and you’re pulling up something that’s a couple hundred pounds.”

Aerial lift specialists work while suspended high above the ground often to build concert stages. Depending on the venue, riggers can be suspended from 40 to 200 feet off the ground.

“You use carabiners, pulleys and different kinds of ropes,” Garcia said. “It’s essentially climbing except it’s inside, and there’s not an ice base or a mountain base.”

Riggers use harnesses and safety lines that will catch them if something should come undone. Most riggers use climbing-certified gear, according to Garcia.

While safety measures are taken, he has seen people fall and ropes snap. He said he knew someone who died in a rigging-related accident several years ago, when he slipped and fell from the area he was working on. Though Garcia said he is aware of the risks, he finds peace in his work.

“I get a very calm sense of myself when I’m up there,” he said. “It’s kind of like a heightened awareness. When I’m pulling up something really heavy, I can hear my heart beat. I can hear my lungs. It’s a heightened place I put myself in.”

Window washers, similar to riggers, face dangerous conditions daily at work. However, window washers have to brave the elements, like wind and freezing temperatures, in ways riggers generally do not.

William Dron, president and founder of Prime Time Window Cleaning, who has more than 40,000 residential and commercial clients throughout Chicago, said he is well aware of his employees’ risks.

“Every time they get up on a ladder they’re taking a risk,” Dron said. “We’re dealing with lots of variables: Sometimes it’s drizzling or [a] windy day. When these guys are up on ladders, maybe their footing isn’t as sturdy or the ground isn’t level. There are risks all day [and] every day on every single job.”

Not everyone can physically handle the risks of a dangerous job, Dron said.

Arborists, like window washers and riggers, must be strong, not afraid of heights, flexible and able to withstand the elements, according to Dan Klindera, district manager for Autumn Tree Care Experts in Chicago.

His employees typically work eight-hour days, climbing, trimming limbs, cutting down weak or sick branches and using wood chippers to cut the limbs into small 1-by-1-inch wood chips. Arborists typically make between $10 to $26 an hour, depending on the skill level of the worker.

“Our guys are 70 feet in the air, hanging by a rope above a tree’s canopy,” Klindera said. “It can be windy, it can be rainy, it can be snowing, and they’re wielding a chainsaw and removing limbs and sections of trees that can be a couple hundred pounds. I would say it’s kind of dangerous.”

The team of arborists at every site must be in constant communication with one another, according to Klindera, because their lives depend on that communication.

“Your life is in the hands of everyone on that team,” Klindera said. “You could be under a tree, and someone could be dropping limbs at that time … you could be putting people’s lives in jeopardy.”