Big Ben Maintenance Raises Controversy

No doubt you’ll have heard on the news and in the newspapers that Elizabeth Tower which houses The Great bell, the official name for Big Ben, will be undergoing renovation/ maintenance and as a result Big Ben will not chime for 4 years from August 21, 2017. The renovation includes the installation of a lift and repairs to the clock’s hands, mechanism and pendulum. The clock is to be dismantled piece by piece, with each cog examined and restored, the glass repaired, and the hands removed and refurbished. However at least one clock face will continue to operate via a temporary modern electric system, but scaffolding will cover three of the four clock faces by the end of October.

The keeper of the clock, Steve Jaggs, said “This essential programme of works is a significant milestone in this crucial conservation project which will safeguard the clock on a long-term basis, as well as protecting and preserving its home, the Elizabeth Tower.”

Some History

There is some history behind silencing Big ben during repair work. The last time 13.7-tonne Big Ben was silenced was in 2007 when maintenance work was also carried out and before that it was stopped in 1983 for two years of refurbishment. The clock has also been stopped on a number of other occasions in its 157-year history since it first sounded in 1859.

News Reports

Many of the newspapers reported and commented that there had been some backlash regarding the fact that Big Ben would be silent for 4 years.

The Guardian reported comments from several MPs who have raised concerns over the plan to silence the bell. The Commons commission was also reported to have stated it will review the timescale after complaints were raised, including by Theresa May, who said it “cannot be right” for the bells not to chime regularly for four years.

The Telegraph also commented that Theresa May, the Prime Minister had publicly expressed her dismay at the plans while Brexit Secretary David Davis said stopping the chimes was “mad”. He dismissed health and safety concerns linked to the clock tower’s restoration and urged the estate’s authorities to “just get on with it”.

Why Not Just Use Ear Defenders?

So you may be asking “Why can’t the workers just use ear defenders?”

This was explained by a spokeswoman who was reported as saying “The chimes are being stopped to provide a safe environment for the people working on the scaffolding.

Constant proximity to the chimes would pose a serious risk to their hearing, and would prevent efficient working.

Clock mechanics who work on Big Ben currently get ear defenders but are exposed to the ringing bells for only short periods of time each week. People will be working on the scaffolding day-in day-out throughout the works, and, while protective headgear could be provided, it is not desirable for individuals working at height to have their hearing obscured as there is concern the ability to hear each other and any alarms could be affected.”

Health and Safety

Hugh Robertson of the TUC said “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.”

The H&SE issued a statement which said “In relation to yesterday’s reporting relating to the Big Ben conservation project in London, 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.

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.”

Noise and Big Ben

Big Ben’s chimes have been measured at 118 decibels.

Legal Limits

The regulation state the legal limit values are:

  • lower exposure action values:
    • daily or weekly exposure of 80 dB;
    • peak sound pressure of 135 dB;
  • upper exposure action values:
    • daily or weekly exposure of 85 dB;
    • peak sound pressure of 137 dB.

There are also levels of noise exposure which must not be exceeded. These are called exposure limit values:

  • daily or weekly exposure of 87 dB;
  • peak sound pressure of 140 dB.

Potential Effects of Noise Induced Hearing Loss

Noise induced hearing loss is irreversible damage to the ears caused by exposure to high levels of noise. Hearing is gradually lost over a working life.

The H&SE website has a section on noise and how it can affect workers and WorksafeBC have produced a video in the style of a TV science show called the ‘The Hearing Video’  to demonstrate how your ears work and the sort of damage that excessive noise can cause inside your ears.

Control of Noise at Work Regulations

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations came into force in the UK on 6 April 2006 (Noise Regulations 2005). The aim of the regulations is to ensure that workers’ hearing is protected from excessive noise at their place of work and requires employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. The Regulations require employers to:

  • Assess the risks to your employees from noise at work;
  • Take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks;
  • Provide your employees with hearing protection if you cannot reduce the noise exposure enough by using other methods;
  • Make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded;
  • Provide your employees with information, instruction and training;
  • Carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health.

An estimated 20,000 people working during the last year suffered from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions) (new as well as longstanding cases) caused or made worse by work, based on data from the Labour Force Survey (three year average period 2013/14-2015/16), equating to a rate of 62 cases per 100,000 workers.

The Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme (IIDB) had 100 new claims in 2015, compared to 130 and 120 in 2014 and 2013 respectively.

Although everyone will be sad that Big Ben will be silent for some time workplace noise needs to be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately.

Contact New Broom Training for Health and Safety Consultancy on 01795 500816 or via our contact form.