There’s something in the water…

Even though Legionnaire’s disease is often fatal, coverage and education of the topic is limited within the UK due to the low number of cases.

The Legionella bacteria was first discovered in 1977 when an outbreak occurred at a hotel in Philadelphia, USA at an American Legion convention. The bacteria caused an onset of severe pneumonia; within a week of the event, more than 130 people had been hospitalised and 25 had died.

Legionnaire’s Disease

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention launched an investigation that found the source of the bacteria to be breeding in a cooling tower within the hotels air conditioning unit; this circulated the bacteria around the building. This tragic event led to new regulations and legislation regarding worldwide climate control systems.

The bacterium, Legionella Pneumophila, is naturally found in fresh water albeit in harmlessly low numbers. The bacteria can rapidly multiply in artificial water supply systems such as hot water tanks, hot tubs, spa pools and cooling towers of air conditioning units.

The bacteria is usually spread and contracted by inhaling mist (small droplets of water) that contains the bacteria.

The key temperature bracket for Legionella to breed is 20-45 degrees. There is also a high chance that Legionella will become harmful if there are impurities in the water such as rust and algae that the bacteria can use for food.

Typically, there is no evidence to suggest that Legionnaires’ disease is contagious and passed from one human to another.

Due to the nature of how it is spread, anyone can contract the disease. However, there are those that are more susceptible to the infection.

Those who are at a higher risk include people over the age of 45, smokers and heavy drinkers, those suffering from chronic respiratory or kidney disease, those with diabetes, lung or heart disease and anyone with an impaired immune system.

Legionnaires’ disease is a deadly form of pneumonia with initial flu like symptoms. 10% of infected cases are likely to be fatal. Once the bacteria begins to infect the lungs, the symptoms of pneumonia begin with a persistent cough, shortness of breath and chest pains.

The incubation period from contracting the infection to the start of symptoms is normally six to seven days but can range anywhere from two to 19 days.

There is no vaccine to protect against Legionnaires’ disease and the effects of the Legionella bacteria. Prevention is key and it is dependant on good maintenance of water systems. Treatment of the disease is with antibiotics.

There are locations more at risk from Legionnaires’ disease including local authorities, universities, housing associations, hospitals, office blocks, hostels, museums, private rental properties, hotels and caravan sites. These venues and organisations are more susceptible due to having larger, complex water systems within which the bacteria can spread quickly.

In 2015, 371 cases were reported within the UK ( Cases of the disease within the UK normally peak between July and September.

In Edinburgh in 2012 in which 92 cases were detected and 4 people died. This is understood to be contracted by stagnant water in cooling towers.

A recent case of Legionnaires’ disease was identified at a hospice in Sydenham after a patient died and a worker suffered life altering effects from the disease. The hospice had implemented measures to attempt to control legionella but failed to appoint a competent person to manage these systems. The hospice pleaded guilty to breaching Sections 3 (1) and 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and were sentences to a two year conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs of £25,000.

Every business has a moral and legal obligation to take care of its staff and members of the general public. Employers are required to consider the risks from legionella and take suitable precautions.

Once risked has been identified and assessed, a course of action should be put in place to prevent/control the risk. Implementation of the action is key and a competent person should be appointed to manage this. Records should be collated to provide evidence of checks and where appropriate, rectify any issues. In some instances, it is also appropriate to notify the local authority of cooling towers on site. This is the basic – Plan, Do, Check, Act process that can ensure compliance with health and safety regulation. Regular water tests are essential; ensuring water systems remain in use to prevent stagnation is vital.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) provides a framework of actions designed to assess, prevent and control risk from bacteria such as Legionella and take suitable precautions. There is an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) with details and guidance on how to manage the risks within your business.

Should an occurrence of Legionellosis become apparent, this is reportable under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injury, Death and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations).

We at BN SHE Consultancy Ltd are dedicated to ensuring that businesses are compliant with health and safety laws and legislation.

If you’re unsure about your obligations regarding Legionella, believe your business may be at risk or have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and let us know; or 01981 540 197.

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