Every year there are around 300 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease in England and Wales and between 20-40 in Scotland, but many cases may go unreported. An estimated 10-15% of otherwise healthy people who contract Legionnaires’ disease will die and the number of deaths may be higher in people with pre-existing health conditions, so it’s not something to be taken lightly.
The recent Edinburgh outbreak has so far resulted in the death of two men and has affected 89 people in total – more than are usually affected in a whole year. Five are now taking legal action.
Investigations have led to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) serving an improvement notice on two of the city’s manufacturing businesses, one a pharmaceutical company and one a distillery.
One firm was served the improvement notice on one of its cooling towers and, in response, the company has chosen to take all three of its cooling towers out of operation – a responsible yet bold decision given the impact of this on the business. The notice was served for a failure to devise and implement a sustained and effective biocide control programme in one cooling tower.
The other improvement notice was served because the second firm has allegedly failed to maintain their control measures for the safe operation of a cooling tower to the required standard. Interestingly this does not indicate an immediate risk from legionella. This risk was being controlled by the emergency dosing of chemicals and the company’s subsequent voluntary shutdown of the cooling tower, but HSE’s actions here are an example of how this particular outbreak has resulted in the discovery of other potential issues – even if they are not the direct source of the current emergency.
Indeed based on experience from previous occurrences the source of the Edinburgh legionnaire’s disease outbreak may never be conclusively identified. In total 16 cooling towers in the south-west of Edinburgh have been treated with a range of chemicals to kill any bacteria. Furthermore, it is expected that the HSE will renew its warning to companies to ensure that water storage and cooling systems are adequately treated to prevent the growth of the legionella bacteria.
But we are calling for more to be done. Manufacturing plants with cooling towers or aqueous tunnel washers are particularly at risk, although any water system – with the right environmental conditions – could be a source for legionella bacteria growth. The Edinburgh outbreak reminds us that manufacturers must take the dangers seriously.
Maybe it is time that the current legislation is reviewed. Today’s training requirements, particularly the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002, are designed to ensure that systems are maintained to standards that minimise risk from the disease and do not harbour the legionella bacteria.
This covers safety issues, such as the identification, assessment, prevention or control and management of the risk, plus matters of training and competence and good record keeping. Increasing fines for non-conformity would provide an additional financial disincentive to cut corners.
It is simply unsatisfactory for these kinds of outbreaks to continue occurring. In addition to the obvious issue of public safety there is the matter of public confidence in our industry and with every outbreak we are in danger of losing more of this.