The recent rise in the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns resulted in increased warnings about Legionella for some businesses. Buildings were shut down for months to limit the spread of Coronavirus, and this presented an opportunity for the growth of the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease.
As an employer, ensuring the safety of your employees, associates, and customers within your walls must be one of your top priorities.
Even though Legionella is a relatively understated concern for most businesses, mitigating the risk of a possible outbreak of the infection is your responsibility as a business owner. The penalties for not doing so can stretch from fines to imprisonment. This is what drives so many businesses to review the risks associated with Legionella in their workplace and take a detailed look at their responsibilities and legal obligations.
In this article, we cover the main risks associated with Legionella in your workplace, how you can combat those risks to create a safer working environment for your employees, and what regulations you need to comply with as a business owner. We will also look at why you may need Legionella Awareness.
What Is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease is a rare but severe form of pneumonia caused by infection from a bacterium known as Legionella. The bacteria cause inflammation of the lungs, leading to long-term health problems or possibly even death.
An analysis of the cases of Legionnaires’ disease in England and Wales showed that approximately 250 contract the disease on an average every year. However, the latest figures published by Public Health England reported that there were 503 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in 2019 in England and Wales.
Experts warn that the country faces a ‘potential time bomb,’ as the threat posed by Legionairre’s disease will rise as climate change continues.
The disease was first identified in 1976, six months after a mysterious outbreak infected over a 180 people and took the lives of 29 attendees at an American Legion convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. This was the first known modern outbreak of this disease.
It’s crucial that anyone responsible for a premises understands that nature of the risk involved and undertake Legionella Awareness training, as required.
How Do You Contract Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease does not spread from one person to another. It spreads from the inhalation of water droplets that are contaminated with the Legionella bacteria.
The Legionella bacterium is so small that it is trapped in the air inside tiny water droplets such as mist and water vapour. Once you breathe in those water droplets, the bacterium makes its way to your lungs and causes an infection.
Legionella bacteria thrive in warm water and are usually found in freshwater sources such as rivers, streams, and lakes, etc.
Natural water sources do not pose a risk of infection from Legionella. The real problem arises when the bacteria makes its way to man-made water systems such as showerheads, sink faucets, air conditioners, hot tubs, decorative fountains, and water tanks, where it can multiply and potentially infect someone.
Although not common, in some cases, Legionnaires’ disease can also be caused by drinking contaminated water containing legionella.
Signs & Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease
The signs and symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are very similar to other types of pneumonia and may start to manifest around two to fourteen days after being exposed to the bacteria.
The disease usually feels like flu at first with symptoms such as:
- Muscle aches
After a few days, the symptoms may progressively get worse and you may experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
The Need for a Legionella Management Plan
Legionnaires’ disease has proven to be a fatal condition for many people across the world. However, these unfortunate fatalities could be prevented with the help of a Legionella management plan consisting of proper Legionella risk assessment procedures and control measures.
Those seeking to bolster their Legionella disease risk management should:
- Understand the health risks associated with legionella
- Understand how to identify and assess sources of risks
- Prepare a course of action for preventing and controlling these risks
- Maintain records and keep a check of what has been done to control these risks.
Let’s take a look at why every business owner needs to have a Legionella management plan in place.
Compliance with the Law
Businesses need to carry out frequent Legionella risk assessments to avoid litigation and potential breaches of the law. Violation of safety or health regulations and laws could potentially result in legal action against the those responsible.
With regards to safeguarding the people in your workplace from Legionella, UK health and safety legislations have set out certain provisions and guidelines that all business owners must comply with to fulfil their legal duties.
An employer’s duties to control legionella in the UK workplace are set out in:
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA)
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (MHSWR)
- The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
According to the duties listed under the HSWA, the key obligations of an employer to reduce the risk of exposure to Legionella on their premises include having to:
- Monitor their water temperature at regular intervals
- Flush both hot and cold taps for two minutes
- Record results of Legionella testing and retain them for at least five years
Additionally, the Health and Safety Executives Approved Code of Practice (L8) “Legionnaires’ disease: The Control of Legionella Bacteria in Water Systems” contains practical guidance on how a business owner can manage and control the risks of legionella in their water system.
As per recent guidelines from Public Health England, all businesses are also required to flush out the water system on their premises if it has been sitting stagnant throughout the lockdown period because these stagnant water systems pose a potential public health risk of a legionella outbreak.
A Legionella management plan helps to safeguard the well-being of your employees and any visitors in your building.
As a business, your employees are your most valuable assets but if your water system is contaminated with Legionella, your employees are at risk of infection. This is why several businesses have a Legionella management plan in place to ensure that they create a safe and healthy workplace for their employees.
What Will Happen If You Don’t Have A Legionella Management Plan?
Since Legionella compliance is governed by several different regulations and legislations, fiscal punishments received by different parties for not having a proper management plan to control the risk of legionella bacteria vary.
As discussed earlier, without a legionella management plan in place, Legionnaires’ disease can prove to be fatal. If the potential loss of human life was already not enough, there can also be several hefty financial consequences for a business owner if they fail to manage the risks of Legionella on their premises.
In December 2018, a UK District Council was fined £27,000 after a Legionella outbreak nearly killed someone. Other businesses in the past have had to face even stricter penalties for not having proper risk assessment and management procedures in place, including fines worth millions of pounds, along with remedial orders and publicity orders.
Historically, financial penalties for businesses that have failed to put suitable measures in place to control the risk of legionella have ranged from £20,000 to £1.5 million.
Additionally, those found guilty of negligence leading to the loss of life due to this disease can be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007. In some cases, those who were found guilty of negligence also had to face three-to-twelve-month prison sentences.
Managing the Risk of Legionnaires’ disease
Before you begin managing the risk of Legionnaires’ disease, you must carry out a risk assessment of your building to identify and assess sources of possible Legionella contamination. All possible sources of Legionella should be identified with the help of professional water testing.
Legionella will usually present a risk to your water systems, especially if there is rust, sludge, or scale present, and the temperature of the water within the system is between 20oC and 45oC.
Once the growth of Legionella in your water systems is identified, you can move on towards managing this risk. You can do so by making sure that your water system is flushed out and that it is updated and maintained regularly to prevent rust and scale from growing.
Your water system also needs to be kept clean and regularly treated to kill Legionella and other micro-organisms.
You can also make use of modern water temperature monitoring systems that can control the temperature of the water in your system to avoid temperatures in which Legionella is known to grow.
Lastly, you need to ensure that water does not remain stagnant by keeping the length of pipes in your water system short and removing pipework that is of no use.
Recording Your Legionella Management Plan
Employers need to ensure that their legionella management plan and risk assessment procedures are well-documented and recorded. This will help prove compliance to the relevant authorities while also allowing the organisation to consistently update risk assessment procedures effectively.
Legionella Awareness Training Courses
If you run a business, you’ll need a substantial amount of knowledge and understanding of the Legionella bacteria and its infection to manage its risks.
Equipped with in-depth knowledge about your water system and the potential risks of Legionella, you can plan the best course of action for your organisation’s well-being. This will limit exposure to the bacteria.
Human Focus offers several online Legionella Awareness training courses. Legionella Awareness Advanced comes in three modules and covers the essentials of what those in charge of premises need to understand about this risk.
Human Focus also offers a more in-depth five-module course that explores about what you need to do to control Legionella. For instance, what types of water systems are there, what levels of risk do they present, and what you need to do to ensure they remain safe. We also have an awareness level single module course that covers the basics Legionella, so that your employees can understand the risks involved.
The Bottom Line
Legionella is a very serious disease that every business should be knowledgeable about. Employers also need to be aware of their legal responsibilities and the health risks associated with the Legionella bacteria. Being aware of the control measures required to minimise the possibility of a Legionella outbreak can help employers create a safe and effective management plan to protect themselves and their employees.