Big Ben’s famous bongs may be silenced for Health & Safety reasons. Parliamentary authorities announced the 13.7 tonne Great Bell may stop bonging to protect the hearing of workers carrying out renovation work.

It’s scheduled to fall silent after striking at noon on Monday 21 August. It is not expected to regularly ring again until completion of the £29 million renovation of the Elizabeth Tower and Great Clock in 2021.

Big Ben has marked the hour with almost unbroken service since first sounding in 1859. It would be the longest period without regular bonging. It may still bong for important events such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day.

It is intended the clock will silently continue telling the time.

Serious hearing risk

Parliament’s authorities insisted silencing the bells is necessary on Health & Safety grounds.

A spokeswoman said “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.”

She added “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.”

TUC Health & Safety expert Hugh Robertson states protection from a 120 decibel sound is “just plain common sense”.

Health & Safety rules dictate ear defenders should only be used as a last resort in the workplace.

Criticism

Silencing Big Ben’s bongs for four years has been heavily criticised.

Brexit Secretary David Davis comments says he can’t understand the Health & Safety concerns as “there’s hardly a Health & Safety argument – it’s replacing a bell”. He says those working on the renovation should “just get on with it” adding his approach in business was to “just do it, don’t faff”.

Other senior MPs describe the silencing as “bonkers” saying they’re “astonished” to find it means Big Ben may not be heard for four years.

Conservative MP James Gray who sat on the administration committee that first approved the work calls the decision “entirely bonkers”.

Safety Gestapo v Luftwaffe

MPs evoked the spirit of the Blitz in demanding a rethink over the four year silence.

Labour’s Steve Pound comments “They kept the bells tolling through the Blitz. The Luftwaffe could not stop it but Health & Safety has. There has to be a way around.”

Tory MP Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, believes “It is a tremendously defeatist decision in an age where the technology exists to recreate the sound of Big Ben completely authentically and on time.”

Of the restoration workers, Soames said “Tell those poor little darlings to put headphones on.”

PM Theresa May joined the debate saying “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.”

Decision review 

In the face of the criticism, the responsible administrative body has announced a review of the decision to silence Big Ben.

Spokesman Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said “I have asked whether someone can do some work working out what the costings and the practicality of ringing the bells more frequently would be.”

Brake confirmed when the restoration plans were approved MPs did not know Big Ben would be silenced for four years because of Health & Safety concerns.

Practical difficulties 

Keeper of the Great Clock Steve Jaggs repeats the reason for the silencing is “Health & Safety and duty of care”.

He stresses “The workmen on the scaffolding are working eight hours a day with the noise of the bells which is unacceptable. It would also be unacceptable for them to be asked to wear ear defenders for that length of time.”

Asked why the work will take years, Jaggs says “You have to get everything right. There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s very complex conservation work.”

A spokesman has also explained why the bells may not be rung more saying “The striking hammer will be locked and the bells disconnected from the clock mechanism. The process to reconnect the bells is lengthy and it would not be practical or a good use of public money to start and stop the bells each day.”

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