The Legionnaires' outbreak in Edinburgh is a reminder of the lethal danger of the disease. Health and safety expert Samantha Maxwell explains how to protect those staying on your premises
As authorities in Edinburgh continue to search for the source of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak that has now claimed three lives and infected many more, operators need to ensure they are vigilant against its spread.
This latest outbreak is a stark reminder of the dangers of this type of bacteria and reinforces the importance of correct procedures in areas associated with risk. Those responsible for public and employee safety must have in place strict controls, including water temperature management, water system cleaning regimes and record keeping, as well as staff training to avoid potential issues with Legionella.
Legionella pneumophila is a bacterium that can be found naturally, usually in low numbers, in water sources such as rivers and reservoirs. If the bacteria get into the water systems used in premises then they may cause a risk to humans if people are exposed to them through air conditioning systems, air-cooling systems or water systems used for baths, showers, swimming pools and spas.
People become infected when they inhale air that contains tiny droplets of water called aerosols that contain the Legionella bacteria. If the bacteria get inhaled into the lungs they can cause infection.
The most high-risk areas include the following:
â- Spa baths and whirlpool baths
â- Turkish baths and saunas
â- Cooling towers and evaporative condensers, even if situated on the roof or in the grounds
â- Ornamental fountains, particularly indoors
â- Humidified food displays.
The risk of Legionnaires' disease can be avoided. Any premises that does not have an active programme to control the growth of Legionella is negligent in ensuring the safety of their guests. This programme should include the following:
â- Employ the services of a competent contractor to carry out a Legionella risk assessment to establish the level of risk in your premises
â- Have one named person or a team responsible and trained in managing Legionella control
â- Keep hot water hot and circulating at 50Â°C to 60Â°C
â- Keep cold water cold at all times. It should be maintained at temperatures below 20Â°C
â- Run all taps and showers in guestrooms (where present) for several minutes at least once a week if they are unoccupied and always prior to occupation
â- Flush through any little-used outlets such as taps at disused sinks or external areas for several minutes at least once a week
â- Keep shower heads and taps clean and free from scale
â- Clean and disinfect cooling towers and associated pipes used in air conditioning systems regularly - at least twice a year
â- Clean and disinfect water heaters (calorifiers) once a year.
An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease can lead to severe discomfort, even death. Where death has occurred as a result of an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, the prosecuting authority is under pressure to secure a conviction for involuntary manslaughter. In such a case, the prosecution must establish that:
â- The defendant owed a duty of care.
â- The defendant breached that duty of care.
â- It was that breach that caused the death.
â- The breach can be considered gross negligence.
In the event of a Legionnaires' incident, people in control of premises need to be able to prove that standards were maintained or risk prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, or worse, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
Under both legislations, convictions can demand unlimited fines rarely less than a six-figure sum. For individuals found guilty of corporate manslaughter, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
Even where there has not been an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, it should be noted that prosecution may be considered where:
â- A water system which may give rise to a risk is found
â- A suitable and sufficient risk assessment has not been carried out
â- The necessary precautions to control the risks have not been taken in accordance with the Approved Code of Practice.
Samantha Maxwell is client services manager at Perry Scott Nash