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Legionella and your legal duties

20 June 2012

Following the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh, adhering to health and safety law is even more paramount if you are to keep your workers and the public safe and avoid costly prosecutions. Simon French, Representative of B&ES Publications’ SFG20 Technical Committee, explains the risks of failing to control legionella in buildings’ water systems.

In May 2012, an outbreak of Legionnaires disease in Edinburgh, left two people dead and many others in intensive care. Investigators believe the source of the disease is one of more cooling towers on six sites in the area.

It has taken an outbreak to bring the threat of legionnaires disease back into the spotlight, but this is not a new cause for concern; our industry is acutely aware that legionella bacteria is always present, just waiting for the right set of conditions to allow it to proliferate.

Legionella bacteria are found in sources of water, such as rivers and lakes, but if the correct control measures are not followed, it can proliferate in artificial water supplies, including cooling towers, air conditioning systems, hot and cold water systems in commercial, retail and healthcare facilities and anywhere that water is used or stored.

Reduced budgets, recent weather conditions, poor maintenance and complacency are all reasons but not excuses for failings to prevent legionnaires disease. Facilities Managers and those in control of premises need to be reminded of their legal obligations as set out in the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) Legionnaires' disease: The control of legionella bacteria in water systems (L8). In the event of a legionnaires incident, they 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.

An investigation by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in 2006 after a factory worker contracted legionnaires disease led to the prosecution of multinational automotive parts manufacturer Eaton Ltd and water treatment services provider Aegis Ltd. The two firms were fined nearly £250,000 after it was discovered water towers, which needed to be taken apart and treated every six months, had not been attended to for more than two years prior to the HSE's visit. The HSE outlined that Eaton Ltd did not have a comprehensive and up to date risk assessment in place and that both companies had failed to take the necessary steps to control the potential spread of legionella, exposing workers and the public to the bacteria.

To date, there have been no successful prosecutions of corporate manslaughter arising from death through a gross breach of a duty of care but it is only a matter of time. Following the recent negligence in Edinburgh, we may see the first conviction.

The ever-present danger of legionella makes it a necessity to take rigorous preventative measures. It is important to ensure a full and adequate risk assessment is in place with a control scheme documented in a logbook to demonstrate compliance. Training is also of paramount importance and required by law. One way to do this, and to ensure buildings are kept in line with all current legislation, is to install a planned and customised programme of maintenance and refurbishment. B&ES Publications’ SFG20 is widely regarded as the industry standard for businesses or individuals responsible for maintaining, managing or specifying the maintenance of building services.

Behind the licensed web-based tool is a technical committee responsible for the ongoing updating and progression of SFG20, ensuring it is kept up to date with legal and best practice guidelines and it consistently meets users’ needs. As a result, a new SFG20 web tool is being developed.

The new software will enable anyone to create and customise maintenance standards applicable to their specific project and/or estate and facilities’ functional requirements to establish precise asset by asset service level specifications, and to model the regime to their business needs, strategies and contractual obligations and budgets. It uses a RAG colour coding structure - red for legal compliance, amber for business or service critical, and green for optional best practice for non-critical assets.

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