Dangerous waters

26 January 2018

Paul Abbott, legionella consultant at Hydrochem UK, urges facilities managers and cleaning professionals to prioritise reducing the risk of the legionella bacteria on their premises and explains how to go about it

Since its official discovery in 1976, after an outbreak in Philadelphia USA, amongst American legionnaires attending a convention, the aptly named Legionnaires disease is a severe and potentially fatal form of pneumonia, caused by the legionella bacteria.

Naturally occurring in water, reported cases of the bacteria in the UK have increased by 35% in 2017 alone, with the number of outbreaks currently standing at over 1300 since 2014. In England and Wales, 80 people have died from the disease in the last five years, and in many cases remain seriously ill or now suffer with long-term health problems. In 2017 the legionella bacteria hit the headlines on multiple occasions, with cases having a huge impact on businesses involved.

The complex water systems that supply bathrooms, kitchens and other on-site facilities, including air conditioning units, in many business premises means that they are high-risk environments for the bacteria.

Serious repercussions

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) can carry out both planned and unannounced visits to any workplace, and while many people may assume their teams of inspectors just look for things like trip hazards and loose wires, they can also carry out checks on any man-made water systems.

If traces of legionella are found, the repercussions can be disastrous. Upon finding any areas that breach guidelines, the HSE has the power to take a variety of actions ranging from fines and prosecution, to closing the premises down or halting operations.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulation, those responsible for the maintenance of a commercial premise are, by law, required to control the risk of legionella. This involves the appointment of a qualified assessor to carry out regular risk assessments.

The ACOP L8 regulations say that the legionnaires risk assessment should be reviewed regularly and specifically whenever there is reason to suspect it is no longer valid. The guidance used to say that a legionella risk assessment should be reviewed at least every two years but in reality it should be a living document which must be regularly reviewed to ensure it remains up to date. if you have added to or modified your water systems, if the use of the water system has changed, or if key personnel have changed then it’s time for a new assessment. 

One-day course concerns

Another serious concern is the rapid growth in popularity of one day legionella risk assessment training courses, which on completion certifies the participant as a legionella risk assessor.

In my opinion, a one day course is nowhere near enough to learn the basics of a legionella risk assessment. These courses cram all aspects in – in the space of a few hours and are too generic. Once the course is over, that's it. No refresher courses or ongoing training are required.

These courses produce 'qualified' assessors who aren't competent or experienced enough to carry out any work. Do you really want someone who has only been on a basic one day course carrying out a risk assessment and telling you that your safety systems are adequate?

Where possible I would always recommend investing in a partnership with a reputable third-party water treatment company, to either deliver staff training or carry out the assessments on your behalf.

It’s always best to have someone impartial and from outside the business to carry out the assessment, as it prevents the conflict of interest scenario. Of course, It’s perfectly acceptable to carry out your own assessments, as long as the assessor is competent. After all your business and livelihood depends on it.