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STAYING ALERT TO LEGIONELLA PERIL

Legionella_GettyImages
Credit: Getty

3 July 2017 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal

newsdesk@fm-world.co.uk


Last month’s spell of exceptionally hot weather will have put FMs on guard against the replication of Legionella in building water supplies – but ever more vigilance is required.


In August it will have been 15 years since seven members of the public died and 180 people suffered ill health as a result of an outbreak of Legionella at a council-owned arts and leisure facility in the town centre of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.


As a result of that incident in 2002, Barrow Borough Council and its design services manager Gillian Beckingham were prosecuted. Beckingham was unanimously acquitted of manslaughter charges against her, but was found guilty by majority verdict of breaching section 7 of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 , for which she was fined £15,000.


The council was fined £125,000 for breaching section 3(1) of the act, to which it had earlier pleaded guilty. It was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £90,000.


The outbreak of the disease was traced to the council’s air conditioning system.


In the report that followed the case, published on the Health & Safety Executive’s website, it cited Barrow Borough Council’s failure to carry out Legionella risk assessments and to appoint a “responsible person” to monitor its air conditioning system, combined with badly drafted and managed contracts and a lack of interest by senior management in health and safety issues, as the systematic failures that led to the outbreak.


There were clear lessons evident in this incident and, as a result, there is a consensus that reporting of Legionella has improved.


But a report that came out in June found that training in Legionella prevention could still be better.


A study by utilities learning provider Develop Training Limited (DTL) states that although Legionella is preventable, there are nearly 6,000 cases a year across Europe, including about 350 in England and Wales, with bacteria commonly manifesting themselves in poorly maintained air conditioning and water systems.


Implementing modern training techniques would help to combat the maintenance failings that allow Legionella bacteria and similar hazards to develop in air conditioning and water systems.


Even though these bacteria represent a clear health risk to employees and visitors, managers frequently fail to implement systems to ensure basic precautions – leaving them open to prosecution if they fail to comply with UK law.


Greg Davies, director of market development at Assurity Consulting, told FM World: “There have been significant developments in technology, building systems and services, and the requirements for Legionella control since the Barrow-in-Furness outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2002. The principles for effective management however have not changed.”


According to Davies, this means combining: a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of all water systems under the duty holders’ control; competent and trained management with roles and responsibilities defined and understood required for everyone involved in the Legionella control process; a clear written scheme of control for each relevant system, identifying the criteria for success – and what actions to take where this is not achieved; and a water management system and records that provide usable management information.


Davies points out that most of the failings associated with the control of Legionella stem from “unsuitable or insufficient risk assessments and poor written schemes of control”. He added: “Training and competence are essential ingredients, but so is ensuring responsibilities and ‘authority’ are in the right place and this must start with the duty holder.”


Despite the landmark Barrow case, there is evidence that the management of Legionella risk continues to be a weak point in the way many buildings are managed.


A case in point is the 2016 case where G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited was fined £1.8 million after Harlow Council successfully prosecuted the company for failing to protect its workers from the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.

 

Another case in 2016 saw Reading Borough Council fined for for failing to manage Legionella risks in a care home, which led to the death of a pensioner. A council investigation found that the correct safety systems had been in place to control Legionella, but insufficient staff training resulted in the necessary checks not being carried out or recorded properly.


The local authority said: “The council responded quickly at the time. Extensive checks of water systems at The Willows were verified by a leading Legionella expert to ensure the immediate safety of all residents. Additional training was provided to all relevant staff at the care home.


“Lessons have been learnt. A full-time Legionella specialist now ensures all checks are regularly carried out, all data is correctly recorded, all records are kept up to date and are consistent and accurate, and staff at all council buildings are properly trained.”


Stacey Collins, head of environment, health and safety at training provider International Workplace, says there is no overarching institutional “stamp of approval” when it comes to training in Legionella , which was needed for a more consistent approach to dealing with the bacteria.  


“Despite the obvious need for it, we haven’t seen an increase in the demand for Legionella training,” said Collins.  “...which is a concern given the evident level of non-compliance and exposure to unnecessary risk.”


What is Legionella?

Legionellosis is a collective term for diseases caused by Legionella bacteria including the most serious Legionnaires’ disease, as well as the similar but less serious conditions of Pontiac fever and Lochgoilhead fever. Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia and everyone is susceptible to infection. The risk increases with age, but some people are at higher risk including:


- People over 45 years of age;

- Smokers and heavy drinkers;

- People suffering from chronic respiratory or kidney disease, diabetes, lung and heart disease; and

- Anyone with an impaired immune system.


The bacterium Legionella pneumophila and related bacteria are common in natural water sources such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but usually in low numbers. They may also be found in purpose-built water systems such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers, hot and cold water systems and spa pools.


How do people contract it?

People contract Legionnaires’ disease by inhaling small droplets of water (aerosols) suspended in the air that contain the bacteria. Certain conditions increase the risk from Legionella if:  


- The water temperature in all or some parts of the system may be between 20-45 °C, which is suitable for growth;

- It is possible for breathable water droplets to be created and dispersed e.g. aerosol created by a cooling tower, or water outlets;

- Water is stored and/or recirculated; 

- There are deposits that can support bacterial growth providing a source of nutrients for the organism e.g. rust, sludge, scale, organic matter and biofilms.


Source: Health and Safety Executive