Blane Judd is Chief Executive at B&ES. Keep up-to-date with his forthright views on the industry and the work of the Association by following his blogs.
Spending cuts and warm weather – a recipe for legionella?
The outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh is a growing cause for concern – not least because environmental health officers are struggling to pin down the source.
Public spending cuts have not helped because they have directly led to a reduction in the number and frequency of cooling tower inspections in the area – a situation that is replicated across the UK. Reports suggest that Edinburgh City Council has cut its environmental health staff by 20% in recent years.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was also forced to cut its field operations division by more than 250 between 2007 and 2011. Typically, the HSE and local authorities will share the responsibility for inspecting cooling towers and other potential sources of Legionnaires’ disease.
The cuts are serious and may be a contributory factor, but another possible suspect is the weather. In 2006, incidents of legionella infection doubled when a period of warm weather was followed by very heavy rain – sound familiar? That year May and June were very warm, but it rained heavily in August and there was a spike in the figures.
Simon French, a legionella expert and member of the B&ES Service and Facilities Group, is continually tracking the situation. “The councils are fast running out of money causing cuts to the budgets of their environmental health departments,” he tells us. “I have come across a load of nursing homes with no or totally unacceptable risk assessments, but they still have full certification. Who is policing this?”
Simon praises the work of Environmental Health Officers in Westminster where there are around 1,000 cooling towers within a square mile. “But is this the same everywhere? I’m afraid not. There is no consistency throughout the country.”
The former Chancellor Alistair Darling has raised the issue in the House of Commons in his role as MP for Edinburgh South West. He called for an urgent review of guidelines: “I want to know what inspection regimes are in place for companies with cooling towers. I want to know where we are up to with the current investigation, but also how we stop future outbreaks.”
Again it has taken an outbreak to bring the threat of Legionnaires’ disease back into the spotlight – the same thing always seems to happen with carbon monoxide poisoning too. Big headlines today are swiftly followed by complacency when the fuss dies down.
However, our industry is acutely aware of the fact that legionella bacteria are always around just waiting for the right set of conditions to allow them to proliferate. What this case shows is that the combination of spending cuts and unseasonal wet weather should put us on a heightened state of alert.
B&ES will continue to advise on best practice in water treatment regimes. Building engineering services contractors should make sure their clients are ALWAYS on top of their water hygiene maintenance – policed, inspected or not.