17th August 2017

The news that Big Ben will fall silent on Monday for four years while restoration work is carried out on the clock and tower has prompted a backlash from many, saying it is health and safety gone mad. A Parliament spokesperson said that “constant proximity and prolonged exposure to the chimes would pose a serious risk to the hearing of those working on the scaffolding or in the Tower.

“Whilst hearing protection provides a suitable short term solution to the 118 decibel chiming and striking of the bells, it is not acceptable for those working for long periods in the vicinity of Big Ben. In addition, it is vital for workers to be able to communicate with one another on site, or to raise an alarm should the necessity arise. This would not be possible were the bells to continue to sound throughout the works.

“Workers on the scaffolding could also be startled by the loud sudden noise, with consequences for their own safety and those of other people in and around the tower. The only way to ensure people’s safety is to temporarily stop the bell.”

Writing in the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn said: “The Blitz could not silence Big Ben but the Little Hitlers of elf’n’safety have succeeded where the Fuhrer failed.

“Their entirely predictable excuse is that the precaution is necessary to protect the hearing of building workers. Fair enough, but surely issuing noise-cancelling headsets would be sufficient.”

He goes on to say, “I wasn’t surprised to read that one of the reasons for not providing ear protectors…was that they are unsuitable for people working at heights. In many ways, the silencing of Big Ben is a metaphor for the lunacy of modern Britain’s risk-averse culture.”

Paul Vickers is a Health and Safety Advisor with the ELAS Group, we asked his opinion on the matter:

“The work that will be carried out on Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower is considerable and includes dismantling and repairing the clock itself as well as carrying out any necessary maintenance to the tower. One of the engineers who will be working on the clock said it is the equivalent of a service on a car which has been running non-stop for 116 years. There is work to be done and it’s not going to be a quick job. As the clock is going to be totally dismantled it wouldn’t be chiming anyway so some of the outcry here is misplaced.

“Health and safety is often seen as an easy scapegoat, as seen in the Daily Mail article but, in reality, some of the claims Mr Littlejohn makes are completely unfounded. There is no health and safety law that bans the use of hearing protection whilst working at height. If communication is an issue for workers, then there is hearing protection out there with built in communication devices which can be used. A risk assessment should have been carried out for the work which would show the protective equipment required to safely carry out the work.

“It has been stated that the bells chime at 118 decibels and that you can feel the vibration when you are stood next to it. To put this in perspective this is equivalent to being stood next to the speakers of a loud rock concert. Where exposure to a loud rock concert for most people is infrequent and only lasts for a couple of hours, the chiming of Big Ben is every 15 minutes and therefore employees will potentially be exposed for a lot of the working day on a daily basis.

“The Control of Noise at Work Regulations require that employers ensure that the risk from the exposure to noise of their employees is either eliminated at source or, where this is not reasonably practicable, reduced to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.  Given the level of noise generated by Big Ben and the requirement to remove the noise source it is reasonable that the decision to stop the chiming has been made.

“The Control of Noise at Work Regulations also set exposure action levels with exposure of 80 decibels over an 8 hour period being the lower action level and exposure of 85 decibels over an 8 hour period being the higher action level. 85 decibels is where hearing damage starts to occurs for most people, although this can occur at lower levels for some people.

“Mr Littlejohn also stated that ladders are banned for window cleaners under health and safety law. The Working at Height Regulations 2005 calls for the risks to be assessed and the most suitable access equipment to be used. Guidance states that ladders can be used when a risk assessment has shown that using equipment offering a higher level of fall protection is not justified because of the low risk and short duration of use, or there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered – meaning window cleaners can use ladders where these are identified as appropriate.

“All the health and safety laws that have come from EU directives are designed to protect workers, and some are based on UK laws that were already in place. It is too easy to blame health and safety for being risk-averse and we’ve seen several examples of companies citing health and safety erroneously; the health and safety myth busters website is a good place to clear up whether something that claims to be health and safety is actually founded in law or not.

“I would say that none of the current health and safety laws go too far, instead they try to avoid being too prescriptive in how you manage health and safety. In the case of Big Ben, it remains to be seen whether or not the scheduled maintenance work will require the full four years or if the bell will ring out across London again sooner than expected. The Prime Minister has asked for a reassessment of the length of time that the bells will be silenced but at least we can safely say that the men and women carrying out the work will not suffer long term effects on their hearing as a result.”


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