While the nation is on lockdown it is important to be aware of the growing concern of water systems being left un-assessed, un-monitored, or un-flushed for a long period of time. Any building with communal water systems are at risk of Legionella bacteria developing and potentially causing the deadly Legionnaire’s disease.
During this period of uncertainty, many student accommodation buildings, offices, and other workplaces may have been abandoned and their water systems are likely to be left at risk of going stagnant. Furthermore, many other properties may be putting off or simply not carrying out Water Hygiene Risk Assessments and Monitoring during this period, which is potentially putting residents at risk.
Unfortunately, one health risk does not displace another, and the concern is that our national attentions are solely focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, leaving a multitude of other known serious problems to prevail unchecked. In this article, I am writing specifically about ‘Legionellosis’ aka ‘Legionnaire’s disease’.
What is Legionella and Legionnaire’s Disease?
For those who are unaware; Legionella bacteria resides predominantly in poorly maintained water systems, growing in thriving populations in unregulated and warmer temperatures; it is in these conditions which it can be released into water droplets through something as ordinarily benign as the mist and spray from showers, hoses or simply from the splashback of water hitting a basin. You can find out more about this here.
The result is pneumonia like symptoms that leads to respiratory problems (sadly which can often lead to death) with patients treated with the same lifesaving ventilators needed for those suffering from the effects of COVID-19.
Legionella pneumophila is considered the most dangerous form of Legionella bacteria as it causes about 90% of the cases of Legionella-based infection. Legionella pneumophila can cause serious illness, and deaths occur in approximately 10 – 15% of otherwise healthy individuals.
Am I (or my Residents) at Risk?
A well maintained and routinely inspected communal water system, such as those that may be serving the water supply in your buildings, is of relatively low risk. While the nation is on lock down, however, managers of these systems may be choosing to postpone these routines with the best intentions of preventing the spread of COVID-19. It’s a rock-and-a-hard-place decision, but it is important to remember that some works can be completed whilst social distancing is maintained (click here to find out how 4site are managing this) so it is not necessarily a one-or-the-other choice – you can, and should, maintain your water systems whilst maintaining social distancing during this period.
Legionnaire’s Disease vs. COVID-19
Both Legionnaire’s disease and COVID-19 have very similar symptoms and characteristics to a very severe flu.
Some of the symptoms to be aware of for Legonnaire’s Disease are:
- High temperature, feverishness and chills
- Muscle pains
- Signs of mental confusion
Compared with COVID-19
- High temperature, feverishness and chills
- Muscle pains
In addition to this, Legionnaire’s disease and COVID-19 both use similar treatment methods; both often require treatment in hospital which may include: antibiotics directly into a vein, oxygen through a face mask or tubes, and a machine/ ventilator to help you breathe.
It is clear to see that aside from the serious risk of death, not preventing or controlling the risk of Legionnaire’s Disease can potentially put further strain on the NHS right now by taking up valuable hospital beds and ventilators.
What are my duties?
As an employer, or somebody in control of the premises (i.e. Landlord or Property Manager), you are responsible for Health and Safety and therefore need to take the correct precautions to reduce the risks of exposure to Legionella.
The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP): Legionnaires’ disease: The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems (L8) contains practical guidance on how to manage and control the risks in water systems. The duty is to conduct a Water Hygiene/ Legionella Risk Assessment and prevent exposure to Legionella. However, where prevention is not possible there must be adequate controls in place to reduce the risk and these must be maintained.
Carrying out a Water Hygiene/ Legionella Risk Assessment is your key legal responsibility that will help you to establish any potential risks and implement measures to either eliminate or control risks. You may be competent to carry out the assessment yourself but, if not, you should appoint someone with the necessary competence to do so. This can be done by someone from within your own organisation or from someone outside, e.g. an external consultant.
Most importantly, Dutyholders must still be taking reasonably practicable steps to control risk from Legionella throughout this time.
What can I do to prevent the risk?
Legionnaire’s Disease is thankfully very much preventable and there are some key steps you can take to reduce the risk of Legionella Bacteria developing in your water system.
Duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) extend to risks from Legionella bacteria and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) provide a framework of actions designed to assess, prevent or control the risk from bacteria like Legionella.
You should, as appropriate:
- Ensure that the release of water spray is properly controlled.
- Avoid water temperatures and conditions that favour the growth of Legionella and other micro-organisms – low temperatures (under 20°C) allow the bacteria to survive but prevent them from multiplying and temperatures over 60°C cause the bacteria die.
- Ensure water cannot stagnate anywhere in the system by keeping pipe lengths as short as possible or by removing redundant pipework.
- Avoid materials that encourage the growth of Legionella.
- Keep the system and the water in it clean.
- Treat water to either kill Legionella (and other microorganisms) or limit their ability to grow. If you identify a risk that you are unable to prevent, you must introduce appropriate controls
Furthermore, it is important to flush unused or rarely used water outlets to prevent stagnation and continue to monitor water temperature; this includes buildings that aren’t currently having visitors.
If you require any further advice or guidance on managing the risks from Legionella in your property, please do get in touch.