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Legionella: Clarity shouldn’t mean laxity

Author : Gary Nicholls, MD of Swiftclean Building Services

14 April 2014

HSE changes to the L8 Approved Code of Practice for Legionella control, spell out key aspects of maintaining a healthy, legionella-free water system with greater clarity. But they don’t lessen our legal duty.

The recent changes to the L8 Approved Code of Practice for Legionella control by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), spell out the key aspects of maintaining a healthy, legionella-free water system with greater clarity. However, they don’t lessen our legal duty, says Gary Nicholls, MD of Swiftclean Building Services. 

At the end of last year, the HSE issued a new version of the L8 code. These addressed risk assessment requirements; responsibilities of the appointed competent person under the law, known as the responsible person; the control scheme itself; the review of control measures; and duties and responsibilities of those involved in the supply of water systems. 

This made the responsible person’s obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act and COSHH Regulations clearer than ever.  However, we must safeguard against any feeling of complacency when it comes to preventing outbreaks.  Legionella, which thrives in tepid, static bodies of water, can cause a debilitating ‘flu-like illness which, in some cases, can be fatal.   For this reason it is still important to enlist expert help in creating and maintaining robust legionella control processes, even if you can then manage them yourself on an ongoing basis.

What is absolutely critical is to ensure that you start from a state of compliance with the law, and this isn’t always easy for a lay person to determine.  There is a new technical guidance document as well as the amended L8 Approved Code of Practice, so there much to consider in order to ensure that you are fully compliant.  At this stage, the technical guide is an interim document and there will be a new one in 2014, so you will also need to keep up to date with the changing compliance guidance through the coming months. Expert advice may be invaluable to help you do this.

We are about to enter the highest risk period for legionella, as outdoor temperatures start to rise. Typically, water in rooftop tanks starts to warm up and can provide a perfect breeding ground for legionella bacteria. Tanks must be sound and clean and the temperature of the water in them monitored and controlled.

Testing for conditions that favour legionella should be part of your routine building management processes. The design of the water system should also be checked and any ‘deadlegs’, or ends of pipework in which water sits but does not move, should be eliminated wherever possible.

Special care should be taken over shut down periods such as school and college spring and summer breaks. If water stays static for weeks at a time it is often the cleaning crews preparing for the start of the new term who bear the brunt of any legionella outbreak. Water systems should therefore be flushed at regular intervals to ensure that taps, showerheads and drinking fountains stay free of legionella bacteria.

Any building with a seasonal shutdown should follow these principles. Critically, you must document your control measures so they stand up to robust investigation.

The consequences of not achieving and maintaining compliance can be severe, including limitless fines for the organisation responsible. In the worst case scenario of a fatality from legionella, responsible individuals will face an investigation and possibly criminal charges, potentially with custodial sentences, if they are found to have been negligent.

Although the new guidance states that you only need to update or review your legionella compliance procedures if you have reason to believe that something within the system has changed materially, an annual check is advisable.

There is a huge legal burden on the responsible person to comply with their obligations, and this is still a complex subject. If you are a new maintenance manager, responsible person or duty holder, it is wise to ensure you haven’t taken on a non-compliant system together with your new role.

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