As Restoration Work Begins, London's Big Ben Will Fall Silent to Protect Workers' Hearing

Published August 16, 2017

On Monday, the U.K. Parliament announced that the famous chimes of “Big Ben,” the Great Bell of the clock tower in London, will be silenced during upcoming restoration and conservation work “to ensure the safety of those working on the Tower.” Big Ben will chime on Aug. 21 for the last time before restoration work begins. The project is expected to last for four years, until 2021.

The move prompted newspaper headlines criticizing the decision, and David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, told a London-based radio station that there was “hardly a health and safety argument” for it. According to a statement from Parliament released the following day, the chiming and striking of the clock tower’s bells rings in at 118 decibels.

“Parliament has a duty of care to those on site and our priority is to ensure the safety of those carrying out the work and in the immediate vicinity,” the statement explains. “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.”

The statement also details concerns regarding workers’ ability to communicate with one another and to raise or hear alarms. Big Ben weighs more than 13 tons and is accompanied by four quarter bells, which chime every 15 minutes. Temporarily stopping the bells will also ensure that workers on the tower’s scaffolding, which will reach a height of 100 meters, will not be startled by the loud, sudden noise, according to the statement.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents more than 5.6 million workers in 50 unions, supported the decision to silence Big Ben while workers restore the clock tower.

“Protecting workers’ hearing is far from ‘health and safety gone mad,’” said Hugh Robertson, TUC’s senior policy officer for health and safety. “It’s just plain common sense.”

In a blog post, Robertson explained that hearing protection would not be sufficient for those working to restore the clock tower. In addition to hindering communication and workers’ ability to hear alarms, workers might remove their hearing protection between chimes and forget to put it back on before the bells ring out again.

The statement Parliament released yesterday assures Londoners that the clock makers will ensure that Big Ben can still sound for important national events such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday, which commemorates the contributions of military and civilian personnel who served in the World Wars and later conflicts.

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