Getting Water Systems Back ‘Online’ is a Duty of Care

Getting a workplace or public venue ‘back up and running’ may not be as simple as turning the meter back on, running a duster around and turning the radiator controls. Some premises and business venues will also have water systems that present a particular and deadly risk, can also frequently contain a risk that is out of sight and out of mind.

The risk in question is Legionellosis – a collective term for diseases caused by legionella bacteria (1), which thrives at water temperatures between 20°C and 45°C. It can also grow in water systems in which water is stored and circulated, within systems that produce and disperse droplets and in pipes, tanks and bends where deposits of rust, sludge and scale are a great incubator environment for bacteria.

Typically, issues arise where businesses are not maintaining water temperatures at under 20°C for cold water and at over 60°C, which kills the bacteria, for hot water. It also occurs where dead-leg pipes exist within a system and where water throughput is low. Equipment and features that are susceptible to bacterial growth include humidifiers, air washers, vehicle washers, indoor fountains, showers, spa pools, swimming pools, chillers, water softeners, heat exchangers, pumps and feed tanks. Cooling towers and air conditioning systems also commonly present risks, if not properly maintained.

2020 has not been a typical year. Premises in England, such as gyms and hospitality venues, were shut from the Prime Minister’s ordering of lockdown on 16 March, until allowed to reopen on 4 July. Offices may have stood empty for longer, with staff reticent to return to the workplace when they can work from home. Water Getting Water Systems Back ‘Online’ is a Duty of Care systems can easily have been neglected, and water usage may have been minimal. Reductions in staff numbers, perhaps even the furloughing of the ‘competent person’ appointed by the health and safety duty-holder within a business, may have left it short of the expertise that has enabled it to comply with its duties under legislation such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations.

The law requires those with water systems that could present a risk to not only continually monitor, test and act on issues but also seek competent help from an expert with in-depth experience in legionella control. The reason is evident – 10% of those infected with legionella, which manifests itself in flu-type symptoms and is a form of pneumonia, will die. (2)

We have recently seen eight cases of Legionnaire’s Disease in an outbreak in the West Midlands. Businesses reopening have also been urged by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF) to look out for signs of legionella (3) during risk assessments. Given what the law expects to see, in terms of health and safety actions with regard to this disease, it is imperative that a business that has been shut or under-occupied, quickly gets back up to speed with its water system cleaning, maintenance and compliance.

Legionella monitoring and recording of actions needs to be a serious exercise and a living document of actions; test results and control measures need to be kept for two years, whilst records of any monitoring inspection, test or check, need to be kept for five. Risk assessments should include a schematic drawing of the water system on the premises and should also take into account how cleaning chemicals are stored and used. Documentation should cover areas including disinfection processes and schedules, commissioning and decommissioning procedures and emergency and shutdown procedures.

Given the need to have recommissioning procedures within an assessment, any business that has moved back into premises where water is stored, or aerosols used, should be referencing those recommissioning actions and ensuring they have been through them with diligence. Calling in expert help may well be required, to check that all is safe and compliant. Recording that these actions have been taken is key.

Businesses that could be a ‘host’ for legionella, and which have brought their water systems back ‘online’, should also pay great regard to the similarity between the symptoms of legionella and COVID-19. If any believe that they have suffered a COVID-19 outbreak or have had a member of staff take a COVID-19 test which has then been negative, despite them having severe flu-like symptoms, they should make doubly sure that what is actually causing the health issue is not legionella.

(1) https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/l8.pdf

(2) https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/fastfacts.html

(3) https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/health-safety-news/legionella-infection-in-water-systems/81800/