How safe is the water at your place of work? Ensuring that there is a clean, reliable, and hygienic source of water is integral to the health of your employees and the general public. If you manage or own any type of business in the UK, it is your responsibility to ensure that your water supply is safe.
However, many business owners and their employees remain unsure of how to assess water quality and how to implement the proper water safety procedures.
Preventing the build-up of harmful legionella bacteria in the water supply of your business is one of the key steps to maintaining water safety. Ingesting or inhaling legionella bacteria can lead to a range of diseases known collectively as legionellosis. These conditions can potentially be life-threatening.
Anyone whose work duties include managing a man-made water system should be well informed of the risks of legionella bacteria.
Completing accredited legionella awareness training is a highly effective way to ensure that you and your staff can recognise and avoid the risks posed by legionella bacteria. There are numerous options available for this training to be completed, such as Human Focus, HSQE, and Virtual College.
What is Legionella?
Legionella (Legionella pneumophila) are a type of bacteria that is naturally found in water sources like reservoirs, rivers, and ponds. In the natural environment, legionella bacteria accrue in small amounts and are usually harmless to humans.
However, if they are allowed to reproduce in man-made water system, legionella can be a significant health hazard. Here, they can reach dangerous levels.
Given the right conditions, legionella bacteria can occur in any domestic hot or cold-water system over time. Legionella live in water kept at a temperature between 20-45°C. To survive and thrive, legionella also requires a source of nutrients to be present, such as sludge, rust, scale, or organic matter.
How Do Legionella Outbreaks Happen?
If your place of work has a water storage facility or re-circulates water, then there is a risk of a legionella bacteria outbreak occurring.
Outbreaks of legionella bacteria most commonly develop in:
- Air conditioning units
- Cooling towers
- Showers and taps
- Plumbing systems
- Spa baths and hot tubs
- Fountains and water features
Legionella spreads to humans via tiny droplets of water in the air that are inhaled. So, it is easy to see how the bacteria can move from such domestic water systems to a human host.
Legionella bacteria are often found in businesses such as gyms, hotels, and offices as well as healthcare facilities such as hospitals and retirement homes. It is highly uncommon for an outbreak of legionella bacteria to occur in a normal domestic residence.
How Legionella Can Damage Your Health
Diseases caused by legionella bacteria include Pontiac fever, Lochgoilhead fever, and, most seriously, the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease. Although cases of Pontiac fever and Lochgoilhead fever usually resolve on their own, Legionnaires’ disease is a severe type of pneumonia that requires specialised treatment in a hospital.
Legionnaires’ disease is fatal for approximately 7-12 per cent of people infected, according to Public Health England figures. There are usually 200-250 cases of Legionnaires’ disease each year in England and Wales verified by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). However, the HSE also reports that these numbers may be underestimated, so the real number of cases is likely to be much higher.
Legionnaires’ disease can cause respiratory failure, kidney failure, septic shock, and neurological impairment. Anyone can develop Legionnaires’ disease, but you are particularly susceptible if you are:
- Over 45 and male (although women can also contract the disease)
- A heavy smoker or drinker – or both
- A drug user
- Someone with a compromised immune system
- Suffering from a kidney or respiratory disease
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle pain
- Chest pain
Treatment for Legionnaires’ disease involves taking a course of antibiotics and being given oxygen via a face mask or nasal tubes. Some patients may require the use of a ventilator to assist breathing. It can take many weeks to fully recover from the effects of Legionnaires’ disease.
How to Assess the Risk of Legionella in the Workplace
Employers, managers or directors are referred to as ‘duty holders’ in health and safety legislation. Duty holders must ensure that a ‘responsible person’ is appointed to oversee the safety of any water sources in the workplace. This can be the duty holder themselves, an employee, or a third party.
The responsible person must undertake sufficient training so they can perform a thorough legionella risk assessment, as stipulated by the code of practice approved by the HSE.
A legionella risk assessment should include:
- The name and duties of the appointed responsible person
- A description of the workplace water systems
- Any potential risks
- Any risk control measures currently in place
- Any monitoring, inspection, and maintenance processes
- A record of the results of these processes
- A future review date
How to Manage the Risk of Legionella in the Workplace
To effectively manage the risk of a legionella outbreak, you should first assess the water systems in the workplace. It may be possible to replace or change a system so that it is less likely to develop legionella bacteria.
This can be done in a variety of ways, such as controlling water spray or ensuring water is kept at a temperature that inhibits the growth of legionella bacteria. Where possible, water should not be allowed to stagnate. Water systems and the water itself should be kept clean. Water can also be treated with chemicals that will eliminate legionella bacteria or discourage its growth.
Legionella awareness training will educate employees on how to identify potential legionella risks and give them the skills they need to implement procedures to stop an outbreak from occurring.
Why Your Business Needs Legionella Awareness Training
Although an outbreak of legionella bacteria can result in life-threatening diseases, it is also possible to reduce or avoid the risks entirely. The best way to minimise the risk of legionella is to have your staff complete legionella awareness training.
All employers in the UK must ensure they provide their employees with a safe working environment and relevant health and safety training. These obligations are outlined in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and further expanded in the Management of Health & Safety at Work 1999. Failure to adhere to these regulations can result in heavy financial penalties or criminal charges.
Businesses that ensure their employees undertake legionella awareness training will not only fulfil their legal obligations, they will also meet their moral responsibilities to their employees and customers.
Health and safety training is the most effective means of ensuring that your place of business is a safe environment for your staff and your customers. A simple internet search will bring up a wealth of affordable and easy options, such as Human Focus, HSQE, and High Speed Training.