Avoiding Legionnaires’ Disease – Guidance for Reopening Hotels Post Covid-19
In this article the water safety specialists at Legionella Control International examine the hotel and hospitality sectors and consider how Covid-19 lock-downs may have unintentionally created serious water safety issues that if left unresolved could threaten the health of staff, guests and others as they re-open their doors.
Our experts consider how coronavirus lock-downs may have created hidden dangers lurking within hotel water systems, what they are and which types of water system may be affected. We look at how to properly assess these dangers and conclude with a number of practical steps that can be taken to help keep people safe from the dangers of Legionnaires’ disease. We’ve also published a useful technical water safety document that provides guidance for engineering teams and operators of hotels and hospitality premises — this can be downloaded towards the end of this article.
Over the past 12 months or so, people around the world have been given one clear message.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives. Millions of people have been unable to see friends and family for months on end. Strict lock-downs were brought in around the world to try and halt the spread of infection. It’s worked but choosing when to relax those rules has proven problematic too. And with all eyes on the coronavirus and its ever-changing mutations and variants, it’s no wonder other equally important factors have been forgotten.
Tough times for the hotel and hospitality sectors
Few businesses have escaped the impact of COVID-19 unscathed. However, some sectors have been harder hit than others. The hotel and hospitality sectors are a prime example. To understand the scale of the impact on international travel and hospitality, London Heathrow Airport has recently posted a £2 billion annual loss, with passenger numbers tumbling to those seen half a century ago.
Airports stand almost empty. Hotels, resorts, and holiday properties of all kinds are have been mothballed… closed or operating with only a skeleton staff, waiting for the time they can throw open their doors and welcome holidaymakers back again.
The owners of such properties have worked hard over the past year to make their apartments, hotels, and holiday lets ‘COVID safe’ – and they’ve done a fine job of it. However, we did allude to other factors just now, and we’re going to cover those here.
Unused buildings make ideal breeding grounds for legionella and other dangerous waterborne bugs
When properties stand empty for several weeks or longer, unused by humans, other serious issues can arise that are far removed from coronavirus. Unseen and potentially forgotten in the drama of a pandemic, bacteria such as legionella can take advantage of being left alone in a disused water system. It doesn’t matter whether the holiday property is a simple log cabin in a gorgeous location or a grand hotel in the centre of one of the world’s most popular destinations. In every case, the risk of legionella spreading through the water system to cause serious risk to health is clear – and it is one that cannot be ignored.
How long does it take for a hotel water system to develop legionella problems?
Any man-made water system, whether it uses hot water, cold water, or both, can run into problems within a matters of days. Typically, a water system that’s left unused for 10 to 14 days is all it takes for legionella and other potentially harmful bacteria to begin colonising a water system.
Many buildings around the world have been left empty for far longer than that. As the warmer months approach in many parts of the northern hemisphere, owners of hotels and other holiday properties are hoping they can soon welcome visitors once more. Outbreaks of coronavirus in some countries are eventually coming under control, with national vaccination programmes in full swing. Everyone is desperate for a holiday, whether it is for a long weekend or a couple of weeks in the sun. Everywhere from airports to resorts, hotels, and holiday hideaways must be ready to welcome those eager holidaymakers again.
And that means checking the venues are ready to welcome people back safely. With additional measures required to deal with COVID-19 safety issues, we must also make sure the risk of Legionnaires’ disease is not forgotten.
Making sure water systems are safe and ready for use
Every building or business should have a key person who is responsible for ensuring the water systems are safe to use. Any type of shutdown will stop the regular flow of water through the system that helps prevent the build-up of harmful bacteria. This must be addressed before any hotel, holiday property or site can be reopened to the public.
Here are just some of the risks associated with building shut-downs, all of which could be found inside holiday properties, from the smallest apartment to the largest hotel:
- Stagnant water in pipes leading to dangerous contamination or the build-up of bacteria and biofilm
- Taps and other outlets such as showers going unused for weeks at a time
- Water not being cooled or heated appropriately
- Spa pools, hot tubs, pools, fountains and water features left untreated
- Unused cooling systems, including air-conditioning cooling towers brought back in to service without proper precautions
Ideally, all properties should have been maintained throughout the pandemic. However, many staff have found themselves out of work or furloughed during the first and second waves in many countries. Certainly, with no holidaymakers around, there is little need for holiday parks, hotels, and other similar businesses to have their full complement of staff on site.
So, maintenance issues may have gone unnoticed and the water systems that serve these buildings may not have been properly checked and maintained during the pandemic. This means there is a good chance that levels of legionella and other harmful bacteria may be higher than acceptable.
If a property was to reopen without first checking the safety of the water system, the potential for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease is clear and present.
And that would be the last thing an already-challenged hospitality industry or individual business needs after the events of the last 12 months.
How to combat the elevated risk of legionella and other waterborne bacteria
Fortunately, with good planning the steps hoteliers and hospitality business owners can take to minimise the risk from Legionnaires’ disease or similar harmful diseases are simple enough. The person in charge of water safety should follow all the usual steps they would normally take to maintain that system. There should be a water safety or legionella risk assessment to refer to in this case.
However, risk assessments should always be done again if there are material changes within the system. A pandemic that results in a disused water system for two weeks or longer would certainly qualify.
Identifying the water safety risks
Identifying the risks posed by an unused water system is a good place to start. While many properties wouldn’t ordinarily need to conduct water testing, it may well be a good idea to do so in this instance. Especially if there is a reason to suspect elevated levels of Legionella bacteria. Expert testing would confirm whether this is the case, and if so, how high those levels are.
Other measures that should be implemented before reopening any hotel, holiday park, or resort should include thoroughly flushing through the entire water system. This helps remove any build-up of bacteria and stagnant water from the pipes.
Given that Legionella bacteria can be inhaled into the lungs via spray or mist, it would be wise to minimise the creation of an aerosol and use the appropriate personal protective equipment while this is done.
Serious consideration should also be given to how higher risk water systems are maintained and then brought back in to service. By higher risk we are referring to facilities such as spa pools and hot tubs, decorative water features and fountains and air conditioning cooling towers. These are all considered a higher legionella risk and need to be dealt with properly. It’s important to realise that it’s not a case of simply turning things back on again.
Hiring water safety specialists to get your property up and running again
It’s clear that the risks from Legionnaires’ disease are present, and potentially increased given the current circumstances. Fortunately, reducing elevated levels of this and other bacteria is straightforward if the proper steps are taken.
An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at this delicate stage, when the hotel and hospitality sector is cautiously preparing to reopen its doors, would be disastrous.
Calling in a water safety specialist such as Legionella Control International to conduct a detailed risk assessment and make sure all your water systems are safe to use once more is an investment well worth making.
Proper testing, dosing of the system if required, and adhering to all regulations and compliance measures can help make sure every holiday property is safe. And at a time when everyone would like to get away to relax, it’s a sensible measure to take.
Guidance — How to re-open hotels and hospitality premises safely
Our team of water safety experts have prepared technical guidance that sets-out a number of practical steps that those responsible for water safety should consider before recommissioning their buildings and water systems following a period of extended inactivity such as a Covid-19 lock-down.
Legionella Control International is a world-leading legionella and water safety specialist. Our teams of experts support owners and managers of hotels and other hospitality premises, helping them to protect their staff, guests and other stakeholders and so meet their social, health and safety obligations in this specialist area.