Last Updated on 27th October 2020
Legionella is a potentially deadly bacterial illness. Because of this, there are potentially high financial costs for businesses or property owners who fail to comply with their legal obligations for risk assessment and risk management. For both health and legal reasons, it’s vital that business owners and rental property landlords carry out regular routine testing for Legionella bacteria.
Legionnaire’s disease is a bacterial illness that causes pneumonia. Most people recover from the illness with antibiotic treatment and hospital care. However, older adults, smokers, and immunocompromised people are at risk of more serious health issues as a consequence of infection.
The bacteria that causes the disease can be found in natural water sources, and in man-made water systems. Under the right conditions of temperature and water quality, a Legionella overgrowth can occur, to the point where it becomes possible to contract the disease via exposure to water droplets or steam.
Workplace Health and Safety
Water testing is the only way to determine whether Legionella is present in a water system. Because of this, and because of the risks of Legionella exposure, it’s vital that water systems are regularly tested for the bacteria.
Several hundred outbreaks of Legionella occur in England and Wales each year, with 532 confirmed cases in 2018 alone. This represents a significant increase over previous years’ totals. This is due in part to the UK’s aging population, which leaves more people vulnerable to infection. It may also be the result of climate change, which may make it more difficult for older water systems to maintain a safe water temperature.
The increased prevalence of Legionella outbreaks means it’s even more important to regularly test for Legionella in water systems. Routine testing of water systems in residential and business properties helps prevent outbreaks of a serious, potentially fatal infection, and helps to protect the health of people who live and work in those locations.
What are Your Legal Obligations?
Any water system can potentially harbour Legionella bacteria. Because of this, business owners and landlords are required by law to meet certain health and safety obligations to minimise the risk of a Legionella outbreak. These obligations are published in an HSE-issued document called “Legionnaires’ disease: The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems”, which can be downloaded free of charge. This booklet provides information about what needs to be done to comply with legal regulations.
The obligations and duties of business and rental property owners include:
Risk assessment: This is necessary to establish the level of risk that Legionella might become established in the water system. For instance, this means checking water temperature at different points in the system, and checking for water stagnation, to determine if conditions are conducive to Legionella growth.
Risk management: It’s the business or property-owner’s responsibility to ensure that the Legionella risk is minimised. This means taking whatever steps are needed to ensure that the water system complies with legal regulations.
Maintenance: The system should be properly maintained so that the Legionella risk is properly minimised in the long term.
Record-keeping: If the water system is associated with a business that has five or more employees, the business-owner must keep records of any significant findings from the risk assessment. They must also keep records relating to risk management practices and how they’re implemented, along with dates and results of inspections and tests.
When ACOP Compliance isn’t Possible
In some instances, there may be practical reasons why a building can’t fully comply with the HSE’s Approved Codes of Practice for Legionella. In these cases, it’s even more important that Legionella testing is carried out on a regular basis. If routine risk management practices aren’t possible as detailed by HSE, then other measures need to be taken to keep the water system safe.
Legal Consequences of Non-compliance
The legal consequences of failing to adhere to these regulations can be severe. Depending on the situation, a business or rental property owner may face fines ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds. For instance, in 2016, the Reading Borough Council was fined £100,000, plus £20,000 in court costs, after being found to have failed in its duty of care in managing Legionella risk at a local elder care facility. In this instance, an elderly man died after contracting a Legionella infection while staying at the facility.
It’s important to note that an outbreak of Legionella doesn’t have to occur in order for a business or property owner to be found legally liable. If they’re found to have been neglectful in terms of risk assessment, risk management, or record-keeping, for instance, they risk a substantial fine, whether or not a Legionella outbreak occurs—and whether or not Legionella is present in the water system at all.
Simply put, it’s in a business or rental property owner’s best interests to adhere to all Legionella regulations, and to manage the risk to the best of their ability. This includes regular routine water testing to confirm that the water is free from Legionella bacteria.
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