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Managing water-borne legionella

In many ways, water contamination seems like an issue consigned to history, yet outbreaks continue to occur causing illness and, in the worst cases, fatalities. In this article, Spencer Culley, Managing Director at Churchill Environmental discusses why thorough processes are vital for compliance, particularly in a healthcare setting.

Many people know about water-borne Legionella and how dangerous it can be, but few realise just how prevalent it is. The bacteria responsible for Legionnaires’ disease multiply between 20-45°c when nutrients are available, offering a large window of opportunity for proliferation if systems are not managed correctly. Despite most people being familiar with the risks, outbreaks continue to happen across the public and private sector.

What is Legionella and Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionella is a pathogenic group of bacteria that cause pneumonia-type illnesses, with the most serious being Legionnaires’ disease. Bacteria can be found in purpose-built water systems where conditions are ideal for growth, such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers, hot and cold-water systems and spa pools.

While most of those who are exposed to Legionella will not become ill, it’s still vitally important to ensure water systems and their constituent parts are properly maintained. To remain compliant, businesses need to assess risks in their networks, manage any identified issues, and then prevent the possibility of an outbreak. All of this work requires documentation to remain on the right side of the law.

 A renewed focus
In no other environment is compliance more important than healthcare, where complex circulating hot water systems are commonplace and even a minor outbreak can have a serious knock on effect for those recovering on a ward.

Thorough evaluations carried out by experienced assessors are the best way to identify probable areas of Legionella build up. Churchill Environmental has found that a closer look at hot water return pipework often uncovers areas in need of urgent attention, posing a serious threat of contamination.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has revised its own technical guidance document (HSG274 Part 2) to combat avoidable failings in Legionella control, particularly within healthcare environments. The update states that principle plumbing loops should now be checked monthly, with subordinate and tertiary loops checked every three months at a minimum.

Case in point
Despite HSE’s revision, there are still many cases where loops within plumbing systems remain unchecked. Churchill Environmental has been working closely with a regional NHS property services team to develop robust documentation that builds on the HSE’s recommendations.

Soon after the first inspection, Churchill Environmental found areas of hospital plumbing that posed a potential risk to patients due to loops that were now subject to inspection as per HSE’s update. Churchill drafted an enhanced risk assessment and evaluation procedure that now includes a more detailed survey of the hospital’s hot and cold water systems, as well as an asset identification and barcoding system, and meaningful schematic diagrams for staff to reference. These three components allow the NHS property team to oversee all parts of the plumbing network and create a comprehensive audit trail.

The latest inspection found all loops to be compliant and free from bacteria, keeping staff and patients well away from contaminated water. Legionella outbreaks can never be fully eliminated but, as this work with the NHS proves, they can be mitigated with the right procedures in place.



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