From COVID-19 to Legionnaires Disease: A New Post-Lockdown Risk
In recent months there have been several news reports pointing to the risks associated with opening all manner of buildings that were closed during lockdowns across the globe.
Many countries and areas implemented lockdowns to stem the spread of coronavirus. Schools closed. Shops, restaurants, and bars pulled down their shutters. Offices locked up for weeks. Factories stopped their machinery, and everyone downed tools and stayed at home to combat the spread of the infection.
Since the early months of 2020, many countries have gone through more than one lockdown. However, even when governments have allowed people to return to schools and workplaces, it hasn’t been as simple as going back and opening them once more.
Closing these buildings may have combated COVID-19, but it inadvertently helped bacteria to spread unnoticed in unused water systems throughout these same buildings. And that has led to a potential increase in the risk of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.
While no news has yet arisen pointing to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease following a COVID-19 shutdown, the risk is there. It only takes a few weeks for Legionella bacteria to begin multiplying and colonising a water system.
Which buildings and water systems are most at risk from legionella?
Any building that has remained empty and unused for three weeks or more is at increasing risk. Similarly, any water system, from hot and cold taps, showers, ornamental fountains to hot tubs or cooling towers, is at risk of seeing elevated levels of the bacterium.
How can buildings be made safe to use as they reopen?
From a legionella control perspective the most important thing to remember is not to simply open buildings up again for immediate use. When recommissioning a building of any kind, it is wise to create a plan to help you do so. This is the responsibility of the duty holder and legionella responsible person who would normally handle water safety within the building.
If this role falls to you, you should already be familiar with the steps taken to maintain the water systems inside the building. This would involve cleaning, flushing through, temperature checking, and occasional testing if the circumstances demanded it.
However, while all those elements are still important when recommissioning the building, you must also consider the elevated risk involved from having the building standing empty for several weeks or even months. For example, one important task would be to flush through all outlets within the building. Since legionella can easily spread through aerosols, it would be prudent to wear RPE (respiratory protective equipment) while doing so, even if this would not normally be viewed as necessary.
You should also make sure all potential aerosols are limited as much as is practicable, along with reducing your exposure to them when they do exist. For instance, if you are going into a shower room, you could wear RPE, open all windows, turn on the shower, and exit the room, leaving it to run. You can then return to the room to shut off the shower before leaving once more, letting the aerosols disperse while the room is empty and ventilated.
Make sure you assess each element of the water system for legionella risks
This type of risk assessment will help you work out where the risks are. In some cases, the steps you need to take will be simple. When flushing through the water system, all valves should be turned to the open position rather than being partially open. Any biofilm (slime) or debris that has built up in the pipes during shutdown will be more easily flushed through.
It is also important to think about the complexity of the water system. In many cases, a straightforward water system will be simple enough to flush through using mains water. Providing all taps and outlets are fully in the on position, a flush through may be all you need to do to prepare the building to reopen, although sometimes carrying out legionella testing can give building occupiers that extra reassurance.
Following all instructions for evaporative cooling towers
Evaporative cooling towers are more complex (and higher risk) and come with specific procedures for shutting down to start with. These should have been followed when it became clear the building would be closed for several weeks or months.
As such, the only thing you should need to do here is to go through the starting up procedure to get things up and running again.
Consider your cleaning and disinfection processes to help combat legionella
Simple water systems are not likely to need either extra cleaning or disinfection unless there is a clear need. For example, a simple works kitchen may present no more danger than a regular home kitchen.
However, if you already have regular cleaning processes in place, along with disinfectant added to the water supply to combat bacteria levels, you should check these before reopening the building. The disinfectant levels will drop over time, and you may find you need to top them up before the water system can be considered safe again.
Buildings shut down during the summer could pose a bigger Legionnaires’ risk
Many countries have gone through their summer months with businesses closed throughout their towns and cities. Since Legionella bacteria thrive in warmer temperatures, this makes it even more important to take steps to combat the growth and spread of legionella during the coronavirus shutdown.
While many smaller businesses may have simple water systems that are easy to flush through and get running again, others may be at greater risk. In these scenarios, those responsible for the water system and building may never have faced this situation before. There may be isolated cases where a building has been shut for some reason, but many are facing a situation they have never experienced.
This makes professional advice and guidance even more important than ever. At a time when we are all still trying to keep cases of COVID-19 down, we would not want to be faced with outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease as well.
The outcome of so many buildings around the world opening their doors again remains uncertain. However, if you are faced with this challenge, know that formulating a plan and following through on all safety aspects is just the beginning – and that we are here to help.
Expert guidance on how to safely bring your buildings back-online
Our team of water safety experts have prepared a useful guide that sets-out a number of practical steps duty holders, the responsible person and others responsible for workplace safety should consider before they recommission their buildings and water systems following a period of inactivity such as a Covid-19 lock-down.
Expert legionella risk management solutions
Legionella Control International is a world-leading legionella and water safety specialist. Our teams of experts support building owners, landlords and those responsible for the control of waterborne pathogens including legionella in the workplace, helping them to protect their staff, tenants and others and so meet their health and safety obligations in this specialist area.
We deliver a range of specialist risk management solutions including risk assessment, legionella testing, regulatory compliance auditing, training, expert witness support and other services that help keep people safe.