Looking for the ‘L’ word at work: Legionella awareness of course!

When youʼre at home or at work, onshore or offshore, washing your hands, taking a shower after a lunch time session at the gym or just doing the coffee rounds (I donʼt do coffee rounds, although I do moan if my workmates leave me out!), Iʼd risk a guess that most people donʼt give a second thought to the quality of the water theyʼre using. I assume that most people take it for granted that the water they are using is safe. Well, I donʼt want to worry you, but I do want to raise your awareness about a little something called Legionella, which is far more common than you might think…

Basics first, Legionella is a bacterium and Legionellosis is the collective term for diseases caused by legionella bacteria including the most serious, Legionnairesʼ disease, which is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia and everyone is susceptible to infection. Legionella bacteria are widespread in natural water systems, such as rivers and ponds, although the conditions are rarely right for people to catch the disease from these sources. Instead, itʼs from our water storage and supply systems where health and safety issues really matter.

Health problems and Legionellosis infections usually stem from exposure to legionella growing in purpose-built systems where water is maintained at temperatures high enough to encourage growth. This includes cooling towers, hot and cold-water systems and spa pools used in all sorts of domestic and occupational premises, creating a serious concern over Legionella at work. Legionella occur naturally in surface water and are frequently found in shower plumbing too. Yep, I said it’s frequently found in shower plumbing too! Read on…

In fact, a large portion of documented Legionnaires’ disease cases originate in a shower or hot tub when the water is hot enough to produce steam, although you canʼt rule out the dangers from humidifiers either! This is because people are most vulnerable to Legionellosis when they inhale small droplets of water (aerosols), suspended in the air, containing the bacteria. There are also conditions that increase the risks from legionella including:

  • When the water temperature in all or some parts of a container system is between 20-45 °C, which is suitable for growth
  • If water is stored and/or re-circulated
  • When there are deposits that can support bacterial growth by providing a source of nutrients for the organism, such as rust, sludge, scale and organic matter

If you are an employer, or someone in control of premises, such as a landlord, you should be aware that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 extends to risks from legionella bacteria, which may arise from work activities, and so you have a duty to understand and manage legionella risks and encourage Legionella awareness. So, when it comes to water there are two global rules; first, employers must provide water fit for purpose, and second, they must be able to demonstrate this. Are you confident that this is the case? Are you really though? Because the interruption to employee health and business operations can be substantial enough to warrant a careful consideration to that question.

Itʼs fair to say though that serious problems are rare and most businesses, including offshore rigs and platforms, office blocks and gyms, will have some measures of control in place. For example, a site may incorporate a UV unit, carry out a temperature control regime or use one of the many chemical disinfection techniques available. With the use of such controls, companies can go a long way to achieving safe water.

However, to demonstrate a siteʼs water is fit for purpose, a satisfactory water management program will also have to be put in place, including inspection and monitoring. This could involve an external consultant to help initiate the assessment correctly, although Legionella training is available to facilitate carrying this out in-house, and to help in understanding the differences between offshore and onshore water which have a major impact on the risk. In either case, awareness and control should be on the health and safety training agenda of any offshore and onshore business.

Once inspections are carried out and controls are in place, it is then important that companies have an on-going monitoring process secured that provides assurance in the control measures. It also helps to understand the controls better, providing the opportunity to increase efficiency and effectiveness over time.

To be honest, I really have considered the safety of water supplies both at work and at home. You see, my wife is Italian, which means that most of the time I donʼt argue because she has that fiery ‘qualityʼ, which is hilarious usually, but when she gets annoyed I canʼt understand what sheʼs saying. Itʼs a confusing mess of intrigue and fear! Anyway, a couple of years ago we were at our house in Italy and she gave out her favourite warning to the kids, “Donʼt drink the water from the taps”. This struck me as so odd and I was feeling pretty confident, so I had to interject. If the waterʼs not good enough to drink then why is it okay to shower, cook or clean our teeth with it? She stopped and glared at me. Now, I like to think she knew it was a sterling challenge to her logic but, nonetheless, you know that expression “Like a rabbit caught in the headlights”? Well, thatʼs how I looked almost immediately…

Anyway, it was a legitimate question and a question everyone should consider; if the water isnʼt safe to drink, then do you really want to be around it without knowing that inspection and control measures are in place? Think about it, the significance of that extends beyond what goes into your kettle, it applies to the sanitary state of bathrooms and showers too, whether at home or at work. It seems that itʼs only when problems occur that people then appreciate the potential risks that are associated with their water supply, pipes and storage units. And, once contamination or infection does occur, the costs involved in terms of employee sickness, business operations and site recovery can be enormous. The simple approach to inspection, control and monitoring mentioned here helps provide a clear step by step method towards developing a healthy water management program and protects employees and visitors from a genuine threat while also meeting health and safety compliance needs. Be safe, be aware and ensure water safety before contamination and potentially life-threatening sickness occurs.

I still see those headlights whenever I go in to the bathroom, even to this day. Brrr…

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