UPDATE: HSE respond to calls for review of Big Ben silence
The HSE has responded to the prime minister’s and MPs calls for the House of Commons commission to review whether Big Ben should be silenced for four years during renovation work.
The Health and Safety Executive said in a statement that ‘people’s health should not be made worse by the work they do and that no worker should suffer any hearing loss while working on this project.’
It said: “As part of our regulatory role, HSE has liaised with both the client and the principal contractor on this major construction project in central London. This has been one of many projects where we work with contractors in the planning stages, and we’ve noted how intricate, complex and challenging this particular exercise will be. Health and safety aside, we understand these challenges would have silenced Big Ben’s chimes for at least two years anyway.
“While we were aware part of the project related to the clock, we have not been involved in discussions about how that work will be specifically carried out.
“There is broad agreement that the noise risks associated with working around the clock bells are highly significant and we would expect the principal contractor to manage those risks. How it does so is a matter for those involved and their client.”
It follows the announcement that Big Ben was to have the Great Bell stopped during a large-scale, multi-million pound restoration project to ensure the health and safety of workers on site.
It also comes as the TUC health and safety expert, Hugh Robertson, welcomed the move, comparing Big Ben to ‘putting your ear next to a police siren’.
He said: “We know August is silly season, but today’s headlines just don’t ring true. When all 14 tonnes of Big Ben bongs near you, you’ll know it. At nearly 120 decibels, it’s like putting your ear next to a police siren.
“Protecting workers’ hearing is far from ‘health and safety gone mad’. It’s just plain common sense.”
But May said: “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.
“And I hope that the Speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”
Re-assessment of silence
Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, a member of the commission responsible for the Palace of Westminster maintenance work, has written to the director general of the Commons requesting a re-assessment of the decision to silence Big Ben.
He said: “It would not be possible for them to continue to be rung every 15 minutes as is currently the case, that would not be practical, but it may be perhaps practical and it may be financially viable to ring them more frequently than is currently being proposed.”
But it also follows other MPs making disparaging remarks about the health and safety of workers, including Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, who said: “Tell the poor little darlings to put headphones on.”
Some commentators have suggested that ear defenders and shorter shifts could have been used in order to protect the health and safety of workers and also ensure Big Ben’s bell still rang. Workers currently on site at the Elizabeth Tower have been using ear defenders for short periods while exposed to Big Ben’s noise.
An article in the Daily Mail even suggested workers use a specific product – 3M Peltor LiteCom ear defenders, which the paper claimed cost £500 – in order to provide noise abatement from the bell.
But the exposure time of four years to Big Ben’s 120dB sound has meant that some commentators have questioned whether any PPE could mitigate long-term hearing damage for workers.
However, others have said such products are regularly used on construction and manufacturing sites, where noise levels are similar to Big Ben.
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