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TUC safety head defends Big Ben chime suspension

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has defended plans to silence parliament’s bell to protect the hearing of workers undertaking restoration on the Houses of Parliament’s clock tower and its famous clock.

TUC chief defends Big Ben chime suspension
© iStock/ andresr

The House of Commons commission approved the restoration plans, which involve extensive repairs to the entire clock tower – officially known as the Elizabeth Tower – as well as the dismantling and restoration of the tower’s clock, including its great bell, commonly known as Big Ben. 

However, after the announcement on Monday that Big Ben would stop chiming from next week for four years, some members of parliament complained about excessive “health and safety”. 

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, told LBC radio yesterday: “There’s hardly a health and safety argument in replacing a bell”. 

One of the reasons given for the decision to silence Big Ben was to protect the hearing of workers who are undertaking the restoration.

The TUC released a statement that protecting workers’ hearing was far from “health and safety gone mad. It’s just plain common sense”.

TUC senior policy officer Hugh Robertson responded to the negative press coverage in a blog post titled Big Ben Bong Bonkers

He said: “The clock tower and clock are being subjected to the largest restoration work ever attempted in their history, with the entire mechanism being dismantled piece-by-piece and each cog restored for the first time since it was built. Also, the four clock dials will be cleaned and repaired, the cast-iron framework repaired, all the masonry renovated, a lift is being installed and there is a range of other conservation works.”

As part of this process, he added, the bells will be disconnected and the weights lowered to the bottom of the shaft. “The idea of keeping the bells ringing, or even ringing them once a day is a non-starter,” he said.

Employers must provide hearing protection at 85 decibels and the bells in the clock tower ring at 118 decibels. Robertson said this was “over eight times the level that is considered dangerous for hearing and much the same as standing next to a jet plane at ramp”. 

He argued that ear protectors were not an option because workers would not be able to communicate or hear alarms. Robertson added that because the peals are every 15 minutes, the likelihood is that  “the workers would take the protectors off in between and forget to put them on in time.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also issued a statement defending the decision. A spokesperson said: “People’s health should not be made worse by the work they do, so it is important that no worker should suffer any hearing loss while working on this project.”

The HSE said that it has liaised with both the client and the principal contractor on the project. “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,” a spokesperson added.

“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.”



Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton is acting editor of IOSH Magazine. He is a former editor of SHP and has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner


  • Perhaps David Davis should

    Permalink Submitted by StevenMC on 18 August 2017 - 01:18 pm

    Perhaps David Davis should leave the dismantling of the bell to the experts, and he can stick to dismantling Britain.

  • Fully agree no way would any

    Permalink Submitted by Nigel Bown on 18 August 2017 - 01:59 pm

    Fully agree no way would any one be able to work up there with the bells going let alone all the machinery that operates them

  • The solution is simple...

    Permalink Submitted by Frank Rodrigues on 18 August 2017 - 06:15 pm

    The solution is simple... make a recording of the bell and play it through loud speakers from a point distant distant enough to the place of work so as not to expose the workers to more than 85 dB(A), Lepd. The public will still hear the chimes, tough if the clock is dismantled they may wonder why the hell the bell is ringing. I suggest putting the speakers inside the lower house chamber. See if those running the country think its Health and Safety gone mad when they suffer the effects of excessive noise. Its clear from their stance that they no nothing about harmful noise and a whole lot less about everything else. Someone should remind them that the Health and Safety at Work Act was one of the few things UK government got right. If it is not honoured in the very place it was passed then what is any law worth in our land.

  • Great Britain will be a

    Permalink Submitted by eva brown on 21 August 2017 - 09:34 am

    Great Britain will be a sovereign nation trading on a world stage surely a forward looking government will be at the forefront of innovation, change and development of regulatory requirements, does the TUC envisage a similar pledge requiring adoption by the European parliament of all British regulations. Working for a company that operates around the globe utilising OSHA reporting I cannot support such narrow interest views.


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