In the UK, the law clearly states that landlords who rent out individual rooms or full properties are legally responsible for ensuring that their buildings are safe and free from health hazards.
Thousands of commercial and residential properties throughout the UK have been subject to long periods of dormancy due to the recent COVID-19 restrictions. As dormant water systems are the perfect breeding grounds for Legionella bacteria, legionella tests must be carried out as restrictions ease to prevent widespread legionnaires outbreaks and potential fatalities.
A particularly worrying factor is the fact that water will have stagnated throughout the warmer spring and summer months. Warm and damp conditions can accelerate the rate at which legionella bacteria multiply. Therefore, landlords have a legal duty to undertake rigorous legionella testing before they open their commercial and residential properties to public use.
We advise that landlords follow a legionella risk assessment checklist, an example of which we’ll include in this article for you to reference.
Now is not the time for complacency, the last thing the UK needs is a series of Legionnaires outbreaks as our society and economy try to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic fallout.
In this short guide, we’ll discuss what Legionnaires disease is, how it is contracted, and which groups of people are at the most risk if they develop this condition.
Next, we’ll outline all of your legal responsibilities as a landlord, highlighting the fact that although there is no certification required to prove compliance, it’s a legal obligation to perform sufficient risk assessments that confirm the safety of your properties.
Finally, we’ll explain the penalties and consequences of non-compliance, how a legionella checklist will help you, and what you can do to limit the risk of infection throughout your properties.
We’ll finish the guide by answering some frequently asked questions about legionella, legionnaires disease, and landlord legionella risk assessments.
What is Legionnaires Disease?
Legionnaires Disease is an illness that affects an estimated 200-250 people in the UK every year. The potentially fatal condition is relatively uncommon. However, outbreaks can involve hundreds of people who have accidentally come into contact with a water source contaminated with legionella bacteria.
This respiratory condition is a severe form of pneumonia that is provoked by exposure to legionella bacteria. Legionnaires disease was named after several members of the American Legion who developed the illness at hotel convention based in Philadelphia in 1976.
Legionella bacteria thrive and multiply in water systems that are left dormant for extended periods. Therefore, schools, office blocks, hotels, hospitals, and other large buildings are classed as high-risk environments for Legionella infection.
Symptoms of Legionnaires disease develop shortly after people inhale microscopic water droplets that have been exposed to Legionella bacteria. After a few days, legionnaires can develop into life-threatening pneumonia if the condition is not sufficiently treated.
Legionella bacteria colonies thrive inside man-made water systems. For this reason, landlords have to take preventative measures and undertake appropriate testing throughout the water systems in their buildings. This is particularly vital if you are about to re-open commercial or residential premises that have been dormant during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
How is legionella contracted
Most cases of Legionnaires disease are caused by a type of bacteria called ‘Legionella Pneumophilia’. This harmful bacteria is present in water and some soils but very rarely causes infections in humans.
However, man-made water systems such as humidifiers and air conditioning units provide perfect conditions for legionella to multiply and thrive. Home plumbing systems also offer a breeding ground for legionella. However, most Legionnaires outbreaks typically occur in larger commercial buildings.
There are two key reasons why legionnaires disease is more prevalent in larger buildings –
- Larger buildings often have more complex plumbing systems; this makes it easier for legionella bacteria to grow and spread. Also, there are more places available for the bacteria to spread due to the scale of large plumbing systems compared to smaller home setups.
- The air conditioning units used in homes and cars tend to rely on refrigerant chemicals rather than water for cooling.
How does legionella infection spread?
The majority of people become infected after they inhale microscopic droplets of water that contain the legionella bacteria. The droplets could originate from a showerhead, tap, jacuzzi, swimming pool, or the air conditioning system in a large hotel.
Almost 50% of all Legionnaires cases diagnosed each year in the UK are linked to travel abroad. When we travel abroad, many of the hotels in popular destinations open seasonally. Therefore, as water has laid dormant between seasons, legionella bacteria has had ample time to thrive.
Legionnaires outbreaks have been linked to –
- Hot tubs and whirlpools
- Cooling towers in air conditioning systems
- Hot water tanks and heaters
- Decorative fountains
- Swimming pools
- Birthing pools
- Drinking water.
There are several other ways that this infection can be transmitted, including –
- Soil – Although relatively uncommon, several people have contracted Legionnaires after being exposed to contaminated potting soil or working in a garden.
- Aspiration – Aspiration is the process where liquid enters the lungs accidentally. This can happen when you choke or cough when drinking or swimming. If the water that you aspirate contains legionella bacteria, you could develop Legionnaires disease.
Note that it’s very uncommon for someone to catch legionnaires from another person diagnosed with the infection or from drinking contaminated water.
Who is at risk?
Although anyone can contract Legionnaires, the condition is significantly more dangerous for smokers, heavy drinkers, the elderly, and people who have weak immune systems.
Legionnaires disease rapidly increases the risk of developing pneumonia and can cause life-threatening conditions such as septic shock and organ failure.
What are my responsibilities as a landlord?
As a landlord, it’s your legal responsibility to ensure that your tenants are safe from harm. Although there are currently no official landlord certificates that prove safety from legionella, you must carry out a risk assessment as part of your due diligence as a property professional.
Once the assessment is complete, a written record must be kept to show that you have complied with this responsibility.
We’ve provided a Legionella checklist for you to use as part of your legionella risk assessment. However, you can use the points below for further prompts –
- Identify what risks are present in your properties and rate the severity of these risks on a scale of 1-10. To gauge this information, consider how likely it is for your tenants to be exposed to legionella bacteria from each source. Any high-risk areas that you have rated 5+ should be prioritised and addressed first.
- Write down exactly what the risks are. For instance, is the water likely to be stagnant? Has the water been stored at a warm temperature for a length of time? Is water sprayed into the air at any time and if so, how likely is it to be inhaled?
- Next, consider how you can reduce these areas of risk and what control measures must be put in place. For instance, do tenants need to be advised to clean bathing and shower areas more thoroughly? Do the water tanks require additional sealing? Do you need to restrict access to pipework and pumps?
- Finally, assign the responsibility for implementing action for these control measures to a relevant member of staff. This could be yourself, a property manager, a plumbing professional, or another trained specialist. You should also note down deadline completion dates for each task.
Once you’ve used these notes to create a checklist, the list can be used to provide information for your legionella risk assessment as it provides a clear overview of critical hazards and how they can be eliminated or avoided.
What can landlords do to minimise the risk of infection?
It’s thought that as many as 1.5 million UK houses could be contaminated with legionella bacteria. In 2018 alone, 532 cases were confirmed across England and Wales.
To minimise risk, landlords must inspect their water systems thoroughly, identifying all potential sources of exposure or contamination.
In the majority of residential properties containing small domestic water systems for regular water usage, basic assessments should be undertaken. In cases where the apparent risks are low, no further action will be required. In buildings that have combi-boilers installed, legionella risks are very low because there is no need for water storage.
If any risks are identified during preliminary inspections, immediate action should be taken. In some cases, this action could be as easy as routine planned maintenance.
If you are struggling to assess these risks yourself, we recommend seeking advice and help from a consultant or another competent professional. Plumbing engineers are a great option as they are generally familiar and up to speed with the latest HSE guidelines.
What are the penalties for failing to comply?
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance clearly states –
“Landlords who provide residential accommodation, as the person in control of the premises, have a legal duty to ensure the risk of exposure of tenants to legionella is properly assessed and controlled.”
“They also either need to understand or appoint somebody competent who knows how to identify and assess sources of risk and prevent and control any risks.”
The Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) has expressed their concern that many landlords fail to complete a legionella risk assessment, even though this is a legal requirement.
ARLA has actively instructed members to carry out routine risk assessments whether they feel it is required or not, even if the property is classed as ‘low risk’. Ultimately, these assessments save lives and can prevent incurring huge fines from tenants who fall ill as a result of negligence on the landlord’s behalf.
The law clearly states that all landlord’s managing residential lettings have legal responsibilities to make sure that their properties are safe and free from health hazards, including legionella bacteria.
Considering that the relatively low costs of hiring professional risk assessors, we recommend that all landlords invest in these services if they cannot commit to carrying out the assessments themselves.
How will a Legionella checklist help me?
As we mentioned earlier in this guide, there could be a significant rise in the occurrence of legionnaires outbreaks as the UK starts to ease lockdown restrictions. By following a checklist and identifying any risks in the commercial and residential buildings that you own, you are protecting your tenants and the wider public from harm.
A checklist acts as a point of reference for you to follow your legal obligations relating to the overall safety of your building. It also helps to keep you accountable and can act as proof that you have completed your due diligence and done everything in your power to reduce the risk of Legionnaires outbreaks in your properties.
Frequently Asked Questions –
How common is Legionnaires disease?
In the US alone, it’s estimated that over 100,000 cases of Legionnaires disease could occur each year. However, the condition is falsely perceived as rare because the public rarely hears about instances when individual cases are detected.
Occasionally, multi-case outbreaks make the national news. However, due to the level of testing required to identify Legionnaires infections, many cases may go undetected and unreported across the world. Some hospitals recognise cases of Legionnaires once they test patients suffering from pneumonia. However, with additional surveillance and testing, more cases are likely to be revealed.
Because the symptoms of pneumonia and Legionnaires disease are almost identical, it’s believed that many undetected cases of the condition are labelled as pneumonia. Many cases may have been prevented if they were identified as Legionnaires, and the source of Legionella bacteria was determined.
What are the long-term side effects of Legionnaires disease?
Once Legionnaires disease has been successfully diagnosed and treated, the survivor may be affected for several months or years with minor side effects. In 2002, a study of 122 Legionnaires survivors in the Netherlands revealed –
- 75% of patients suffered from fatigue.
- 63% of patients suffered neuromuscular symptoms.
- 63% of patients suffered neuromuscular symptoms.
- 66% of patients showed neurological symptoms.
- 15% of patients suffered from PTSD.
- The average time that a patient believed their quality of life was impacted post-recovery was 1.5 years.
As with most acute illnesses, patients who recover from Legionnaires’ disease could suffer from long term side effects. The most common of these are fatigue and lack of energy for several months after the disease is cured.
We hope that you found our guide to Legionnaires disease insightful. If you notice any of the following symptoms and think you may have contracted this condition, we recommend that you see a doctor or call 111 straight away.
- You cannot breathe properly
- You have severe chest pain
- You have a high temperature or feel hot and shivery
- You feel like you have severe flu.
Legionnaires disease can prove fatal. If you are a landlord or business owner that deals with large plumbing systems that have been dormant for some time, it’s essential that you undertake a landlord legionella risk assessment and that these areas are inspected and sanitised efficiently to prevent the growth of this bacteria. For more information on the UK Legionella guidelines, click here.