Big Ben – Hearing Loss in the Spotlight as Silence Reigns

Big Ben – Hearing Loss in the Spotlight as Silence Reigns

29th August 2017

Nobody here in the UK can fail to be aware of the controversy caused by the decision to silence Big Ben, the Great Bell of the clock at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster.  While many people erroneously believe that Big Ben is the name of the clock, it’s not.  The clock tower is officially dubbed the Elizabeth Tower (renamed in 2012 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, before which is was known simply as the Clock Tower).  The clock itself was completed in 1859 by Ian Westworth and hailed the most accurate four-faced striking and chiming clock in the world.  The clock tower is a British cultural icon and tourists from around the world flock to marvel at the sight and listen to its chimes.   

Last week the tower began a four-year period of renovation work and the bells have been silenced in order to protect the hearing and this has led to a series of newspaper articles (both offline and on) as a row has raged over the silencing of this iconic bell.  The Daily Mail weighed in, describing this as a case of “health and safety gone mad”, saying the Big Ben chimed defiantly throughout the Blitz, providing a “source of inspiration and pride to a beleaguered nation” and commenting that where the Luftwaffe failed, health and safety has succeeded!  This wasn’t quite the truth, however – the bells were silenced for two years during World War 1 and the clock faces were not illuminated at night in a bid to avoid guiding attacking German zeppelins to the capital.  Again, during World War 2, the clock faces were kept dark at night to avoid acting as a landmark and guide for bomber pilots though a German bombing raid damaged two of the clocks dials in 1941.  Ironically, he clock stopped for 24 hours not long afterwards when a workman repairing the air-raid damage to the clock face dropped a hammer into the works. 

The current silencing of Big Ben has sparked some lively debate in recent weeks, with the Prime Minister, Theresa May weighing in with the comment that “it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years” and asking the Speaker to look into the matter urgently.  Other commenters have suggested that ear defenders and shorter work shifts could be used in order to protect the health and safety of workers onsite and ensure the Bell continues to ring over the coming four hears.  Nicholas Soames, MP, grandson of Winston Churchill, scathingly said “Tell the poor little darlings to put headphones on” – clearly the comment of a man who has never done any real physical work in his life!

The exposure time of four years being subjected to the 120 dB sound of Big Ben provokes questions over whether any type of personal protective equipment (PPE) could mitigate long term hearing damage for workers, despite the Daily Mail suggesting a specific (and costly) type of ear defender.  This debate comes at a time when hearing loss due to noise exposure in the workplace is a subject that is gaining awareness here in the UK as a result of a market increase in hearing loss compensation claims.