What is Legionella and Do I Need to Worry About It?

image showing what legionella bacteria looks like under a microscope

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Britain.

Under the law, employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and anyone who might be affected by their business, such as members of the public. This includes mitigating the risks from legionella bacteria. Those who control premises, such as landlords, must also fulfil this duty of care.

But what is legionella and what safety measures should you implement in your workplace?

What is Legionella?

Legionella is a bacteria commonly found in water. In temperatures between 20 and 45 degrees celsius, the bacteria multiply.

Why is Legionella a Health Risk?

If someone breathes in water droplets containing legionella bacteria, they could develop Legionnaires’ disease. This lung infection can be extremely serious and, in some cases, fatal. Symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chest pain
  • A high temperature
  • Flu-like symptoms

The disease is commonly contracted by inhaling water droplets from sources outside the home, such as from air conditioning systems, hot tubs and humidifiers in hotels, hospitals or offices.

Do Some Industries Have a Greater Risk of Legionella and Legionnaires Disease?

All business owners and people who manage premises are required by law to assess whether there is a risk of legionella contamination in their water systems.

However, some industries have a greater risk of legionella and Legionnaires’ disease. These include:

Elderly people are more vulnerable to developing Legionnaires’ disease if exposed to the bacteria.

  • Hospitality settings

Hotels and spas often have complex water systems that can be difficult to maintain. Ensuring that the water supply is safe is harder than in simpler systems. Furthermore, hot tubs and other spa facilities have a high risk of legionella contamination.

  • Industrial and manufacturing premises

As with hospitality settings, the complexity of the water systems used in such workplaces means there is a higher risk of contamination. There may also be cooling towers present — these can spread water droplets to people over a considerable distance.

  • Healthcare Facilities

The risk of people contracting Legionnaires’ diseases is greater in hospitals and other healthcare settings because the water systems used are complex and patients may be more vulnerable to contracting the disease. There may also be a greater risk of the disease becoming serious or even fatal in people who have a pre-existing medical condition.

  • Rental Properties

Landlords and other property management professionals must regularly assess the risk of legionella. When properties stand empty for some time, standing water can result in a higher risk of legionella proliferation. In large buildings with complex water systems, property managers will face the same challenges in keeping the water supply safe as hoteliers and manufacturers.

An Employer’s Legal Responsibilities

The HSWA along with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) as amended, sets out an employer’s legal responsibilities for preventing or controlling the risk from a bacteria like Legionella. There is also an approved code of practice that provides practical guidance on how to assess the risk and implement appropriate measures of control.

Your responsibilities as an employer or controller of premises fall into five categories:

  • Identify and assess the risk
  • Manage risks identified
  • Prevent and control risks
  • Maintain accurate records
  • Perform any other duties you have under the law
  1. Conduct a Legionnaires Risk Assessment

You must carry out a risk assessment at the business or enlist the help of a professional health and safety consultancy. The person conducting the assessment must understand how the water system works so as to identify the risk of legionella contamination.

A risk assessment should cover:

  • Management responsibilities
  • Training provision
  • Sources of risk
  • Strategies for risk prevention and control
  • Monitoring and maintenance procedures and,
  • How inspection results are recorded

You must regularly review your risk assessment and make amendments to processes, policy and procedure as necessary.

  1. Manage the Risk

You must appoint a competent or “responsible” person to manage any risks identified. This could be yourself, one or more employees or an external professional. If you use contractors to conduct work on the water supply equipment, the responsibility for ensuring the work is performed satisfactorily falls to the named responsible person, not the contracting company.

You must circulate information about who your responsible person is and how to contact them to all employees. This should be listed in your health and safety arrangements within your health and safety policy.

  1. Prevent and Control Risks

You must have a system in place to prevent or control any risks identified in the assessment.

This might include implementing steps to prevent standing water from accumulating, maintaining temperatures at which legionella bacteria remains dormant (below 20 degrees and above 45 degrees celsius) and treating the water to prevent the bacteria from growing.

Prevention is the optimal approach. Where a risk is identified that cannot be prevented it must be adequately controlled.

  1. Maintaining Records

Any business owner who employs five or more people must have a written health and safety policy and keep records of any risks identified along with plans for mitigating these risks.

Your records should include:

  • Details of the person or people responsible for managing the risk
  • Any risks identified in the assessment
  • Control measures in place
  • Details of the systems being used, and
  • Dates of any inspections conducted over the past five years.
  1. Other Duties

You may have some additional responsibilities under the law, depending on the industry you work in and the equipment used onsite. For example, if a cooling tower is in operation on the premises, you must inform the local authority in writing.

If one of your employees contracts Legionnaires’ disease after working on a cooling tower or hot and cold water systems, the Reporting of Injuries and Dangerous Regulations (RIDDOR) require you to report this.

Howlett Health and Safety Services can help you to determine the risks associated with Legionella on your premises and what you need to do. We also provide Legionella online training for you and your employees. Contact us today to book a free 15-minute consultation or request a quote.

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