The myth of excessive health and safety legislation

The news that Big Ben will cease to ring following the chimes at noon on Monday 21 August was met with opposition from both MPs and the media. The restoration project has been planned since 2015 and details of the project approved by three parliamentary committees. Part of these plans include silencing the bell until 2021 while the restoration work takes place with exceptions being made for special occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and  New Year’s Eve. 

A statement on the parliamentary website set out the reasoning of the parliamentary commission which is responsible for the administration of parliament. This includes an explanation of the feasibility of having it chime at all. The full reasons include the health and safety of workers on site.

“Starting and stopping Big Ben is a complex and lengthy process. The striking hammer is locked and the bells can then be disconnected from the clock mechanism. The weights are lowered within the weight shaft to the base of the tower and secured in a safe position. The whole process takes around half a day to complete.

Following a thorough assessment, experts have concluded that it would not be practical or a good use of public money to start and stop the bells each day, particularly as we cannot fully predict the times that staff will be working on this project.”

The purpose of health and safety legislation is to ensure that people’s health is not made worse by the work that they do and to ensure that a particular work activity does not cause injury to any members of the public, for more see Note for the board on health and safety offences.

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 regulate exposure to levels of noise at work. In this case, if the bell was to toll every 15 minutes as it does now, workers in Elizabeth Tower would be exposed to 120 decibels with every bong. Noise induced hearing loss is irreversible damage to the ears caused by exposure to high levels of noise. The decision by the commission is based both on this legislative requirement and on the protection of the public purse but “health and safety gone mad” is a strong feature of many objections.

Health and safety legislation is often used as an excuse for enforcing company policy or as a reason to prevent activities going ahead.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published the annual workplace fatality statistics, which show 137 deaths in 2016-2017. There were 92 members of the public fatally injured in accidents connected to work in 2016-17, for more see Legal update, HSE publishes workplace fatality statistics. 

The HSE has set up an independent ‘ Myth busting panel ‘to answer queries and deal with daily misreporting and misuse of health and safety legislation as an excuse for a specific policy. This panel has provided explanations in the past year on issues such as an employer who stopped proving funds for alcoholic drinks at Christmas night out citing health and safety and a mum who was asked to leave a café as the manager banned the use of dummies for young children for health and safety reasons. The panel provided responses that you may predict in both cases, that health and safety legislation had nothing to do with either decision and it would be better for companies to explain their reasoning and policy rather than using an excuse.

The HSE site includes their top 10 Health and Safety myths and ridiculous assertions that are blamed on health and safety law.

Children being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles

Office workers being banned from putting up Christmas decorations

Trapeze artists being ordered to wear hard hats

Pin the tail on the donkey games being deemed a health and safety risk

Candy floss on a stick being banned in case people trip and impale themselves

Hanging baskets being banned in case people bump their heads on them

Schoolchildren being ordered to wear clip on ties in case they are choked by traditional neckwear

Park benches must be replaced because they are three inches too low

Flip flops being banned from the workplace

Graduates ordered not to throw their mortar boards in the air

The uproar about the decision to silence  the Great Bell ( Big Ben)  in Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament has brought a statement from the HSE which has a regulatory as well as advisory role and has been involved in the decision making and work planning for this renovation project.

The statement explains that the HSE has worked on the project with contractors in the planning stages, The HSE has understood that the renovation is complex and challenging and setting aside Health and safety issues, the complexity of the work would have silenced Big Ben for at least two years. The HSE statement highlighted that there is broad agreement that the noise risks associated with working around the clock bells are highly significant and the principal contractor would be expected to manage those risks but how it does so is a matter for the contractor and their client.

This kind of misuse, misunderstanding and misreporting has meant that the very important work that the HSE does is diminished. It is perhaps striking that the legislators responsible for our laws are the ones most up in arms about the silencing of Big Ben, seemingly without a clear idea of the purpose of health and safety legislation. It is not about stopping people having fun for spurious reasons or making work more expensive or slow but about protecting the health and well-being of others, particularly workers.

Practical Law Morag Rea

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