Reopening Workplaces Could Reveal Increased Legionella Risk
COVID-19 has transformed the world we live in during 2020 – and the pandemic is far from over yet. One trend that has taken on new life in 2020 is that of working from home. Some businesses have stated they will never return to their previous office-based practices. Others have said they will split their time between the office and home.
We are all aware of the risks of working close together in office buildings due to COVID-19 exposure. However, other risks lurk out of sight yet close by. Amid the pandemic, it is easy to forget and neglect our responsibilities in other areas. As offices are tentatively considering reopening after long shutdowns and shop owners begin to consider a return to some form of normality after the various national and regional lockdowns, a different danger may well be present.
Amid all the articles about safety in the workplace and reducing coronavirus risk, how many of us have read about a potential increase in legionella risk too?
What is legionella?
Legionella is a type of bacterium found in natural water sources and in manmade water supplies, including the plumbing systems found in buildings. When left to multiply, legionella can grow to high enough numbers to create a hazard to those using the water supply. This can also be a hazard to a wider area if the water creates spray or mist outside, for example from air conditioning cooling towers, hot tubs, or fountains.
If legionella does colonise a water system, there is an increased chance that an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease could occur. Legionnaires’ disease is a serious type of pneumonia that can affect anyone; however, those aged over 50 and those suffering from certain medical conditions are at greater risk of falling ill.
Hospital treatment is usually needed to tackle the disease. If an outbreak is suspected, health officials will attempt to trace the cases to a single source. If they find that negligence led to the outbreak, legal consequences are likely to occur.
Why does legionella matter against the backdrop of COVID-19?
There has been a lot in the news recently about how employers are making their workplaces ‘COVID safe’. We read about shops, restaurants, and other premises bringing in numerous measures to make sure everyone is as safe as possible while there. Sanitiser stations, wearing masks, making sure people stay two metres away from each other, and installing screens where necessary.
With all this in mind, it is easy to focus on the risk of coronavirus and to forget about other risks – especially those associated with closing a workplace for several weeks or even months. This is the environment in which legionella can and will thrive.
Legionella bacteria thrives in warm, stagnant water between temperatures of 20 and 45 degrees Celsius
Legionella loves moderate temperatures between 20 – 45 degrees Celsius. It also loves being left to multiply in stagnant water and disused pipework. Imagine a building that remains empty throughout lockdown. No one is there. No one uses the water supply. Stagnant water soon becomes a potentially dangerous issue.
If people come back to the building to resume work, they’re going to use that water supply. It is likely that bacteria have had a chance to build up within the system – potentially causing health issues far removed from COVID-19 in the process.
Your responsibilities regarding the risk of legionella
Health and safety laws in the UK are clear on this. Responsibility for health and safety falls to the employer or to those who maintain control over the building – usually the duty holder and the legionella responsible person. Assessing the risk of legionella is part of their overall health and safety responsibilities.
This means that prior to COVID-19, someone should have been responsible for handling health and safety matters and processes for the building in question. This could mean an office, an office block, a shop, pub or any other building where people work (in the context of this article).
If the building were shut down during the lockdown or for a longer period, it could be that no one has entered it for some time. In any event, you must make sure the building is safe to use before staff, customers and other people return there.
Steps to take before you reopen a building to staff, customers, or clients
Firstly, you should think about whether anyone was on site during the closure of the building. Smaller businesses are less likely to have the funds or staffing levels to keep regular checks going during a shutdown.
If someone was present, you should know whether they took steps to regularly flush through the water system. This would help reduce the risk that legionella would be able to multiply in pipes and water tanks.
However, if no one was present, you (or whomever is responsible for health and safety management in the premises) should take steps to make sure the water system is safe for use before people return.
The necessary steps may depend on the size of the building and the water system and how complex it is. However, flushing through all taps and outlets is imperative. Proper sanitisation should also occur, along with making sure the temperature of the water (hot and cold) is within a safe range.
This may seem daunting and may require additional steps to those you would normally take when managing legionella risk within your business. There are reports that insurers are concerned about a potential rise in claims stemming from Legionnaires’ outbreaks following shutdowns. While the reports came from America, it’s clear the risk exists across the globe.
Calling in experts to handle your legionella checks before reopening ensures nothing is missed or forgotten. They can handle testing too, if required, along with disinfecting processes where needed.
Keep records to prove what you’ve done to mitigate risks
Keeping records of what you’ve done ensures you have a paper trail. Under UK law it is required only for those businesses with five or more employees. However, we recommend it for all businesses as it means you have a clear record of what has been done and when. If you are ever asked about the steps you have taken, you’ll have the information at hand.
It would be easy to focus on the risk of coronavirus in the workplace to the omission of all else. But as you can see, neglecting the risk posed by legionella bacteria could be a dangerous mistake.
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.