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Failure To Carry Out System Assessment Increases Legionella Risk

17th December 2013
This week the controversial culling of badgers has begun in an attempt to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), a disease known to easily spread to other animals, particularly farm cattle but not considered a significant risk to human health.

Outbreaks of infection in the workplace caused by exposure to harmful micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses or internal parasites can often be traced to a failure to maintain stringent hygiene in food preparation or a defective air conditioning or water system.

In recent years, highly contagious infections, such as influenza, SARS, BSE and Legionnaires’ Disease have all made an appearance, and there have been several reoccurrences of the winter “vomiting” virus. Injury claims by victims falling seriously ill to an infectious disease shown to have originated in a work environment are most likely to occur within specific sectors, such as agriculture, the health services, chemical labs, abattoirs and waste industries.

Number of outbreaks...

However, there has been a number of incidents of infectious outbreaks in residential settings, most notably of the legionella bacteria in care homes over recent years, many of which were found to be caused by a failure to implement obligatory hygiene duties.

The most recent case concerns a Wirral private care home, which was prosecuted by the Health & Safety Executive for failing to properly protect its elderly residents from the legionella bacteria. Incredibly, the care home had previously been served both a notice and two time extensions to put a system in place for managing its hot and cold water plus accompanying risk assessment.

Failure to carry out the required work over a period of two years had allowed defects in the water system to increase the potential for legionella bacteria to build up and to be breathed in where water droplets are airborne, such as in shower units.

The care home admitted a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 at Liverpool Crown Court and was fined a total of £40,000 inc. costs.

Danger of bacteria always present...

However, the danger of legionella bacteria is always present and concern has been raised that its reappearance along with outbreaks from other supposedly inactive diseases signals the likelihood of increasing health risks, especially in the workplace.

In 2009, there were 345 reported cases of Legionnaires’ Disease in England and Wales with the potential to affect large buildings, such as multi-storey office blocks, hotels and hospitals with extensive and complex air and water supply systems.

An estimated 10-15 per cent of all those who contract Legionnaires’ Disease will not recover, the most vulnerable being those aged over 50 or people with pre-existing health conditions. Symptoms, which are very similar to influenza, include breathlessness, chest pain and a dry cough, as well as fever and muscle aches.