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Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria colonising in the lungs. There are over 40 identified species of legionella bacteria. People usually catch legionnaires’ disease by inhaling water droplets containing legionella bacteria. This could be from running a shower or a tap or from a spa pool or cooling towers, for example.
The symptoms of legionnaires’ disease can be like flu, although not everyone who contracts the disease will become unwell, and most cases can be treated effectively with antibiotics; however, a minority of cases can result in death. Some people are particularly vulnerable to the risks of legionella, including older people, those with lung issues and those with poor immune function.
You can get legionnaires’ disease from things like:
- Air conditioning systems.
- Spa pools and hot tubs.
- Taps and showers that are not used often.
- Swimming pools.
- Decorative fountains.
- Hot water tanks and heaters.
You cannot usually get it from:
- Drinking water that contains the bacteria.
- Other people with the infection.
- Places like ponds, lakes or rivers.
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease can include:
- A cough.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Chest pain.
- A high temperature.
- Flu-like symptoms.
Most people make a full recovery, but it may take a few weeks to feel back to normal. Patients who recover from legionnaires’ disease could suffer from long-term side effects. The most common of these is a lack of energy and fatigue, and this can continue for several months after recovery from the illness.
If you are concerned that you have been exposed to legionella bacteria and you have any of the symptoms outlined above, seek medical treatment immediately. The sooner legionnaires’ disease is diagnosed and treated, the shorter the recovery period and you are less likely to develop severe complications.
There are thought to be around 200-250 cases of legionnaires’ disease each year in England and Wales; however, this number is thought to be underestimated due to the level of testing required to detect legionnaires’ disease and therefore it is thought that many cases go undetected and unreported. Half of the known cases are associated with travel abroad.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are thousands of buildings throughout the country that have been empty due to lockdown restrictions. Dormant water systems are a perfect breeding ground for legionella bacteria. As people begin to go back into these buildings, it is important that a legionella risk assessment is carried out.
Legionella bacteria thrive and multiply in water systems that are left dormant for extended periods. Therefore schools, office buildings, hotels, hospitals and other large buildings are high-risk environments for legionella outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a toolkit to assist building owners and managers with developing and implementing a water management programme. These guidelines help to reduce the building’s risk of growing and developing legionella.
What is a legionella risk assessment?
A legionella risk assessment should highlight any potential dangers and the steps that should be taken to reduce levels of bacteria where required. It is vital for landlords and business owners to manage their properties to prevent legionella from spreading and causing people to become unwell.
The first step of a legionella risk assessment is to identify any potential sources of risk within the property. A good starting point would be to create a list of the water systems in the property and make a note of how each of them could be a legionella hazard.
The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) states that a legionella risk assessment needs to identify whether:
- Water is stored and recirculated as part of your system.
- The water temperature in some or all parts of the system is between 20-45°C.
- There are sources of nutrients such as rust, sludge, scale and organic matter.
- Conditions are present in order to encourage bacteria to multiply.
- It is possible for water droplets to be produced, and, if so, whether they could be dispersed over a wide area.
There are many companies offering expert legionella risk assessments that can be carried out on your property, however, usually there is no reason why a landlord should not carry out this risk assessment themselves, as long as they are competent.
There is no need to employ a consultant, however, the option is there if you should feel that this is the right approach for you. The assessment should be a straightforward exercise in domestic premises where the risk is thought to be low.
Do landlords need a legionella risk assessment?
A landlord is anyone who rents out a property they own under a lease or a licence that is shorter than seven years. Landlords’ duties apply to a wide range of accommodation that is occupied under a lease or a licence, which includes, but not exclusively, residential premises provided for rent by:
- Local authorities.
- Housing associations.
- Private sector landlords.
- Housing co-operatives.
To carry out a legionella risk assessment, a landlord must have an awareness of what legionella is, how it can affect people, and how to carry out a risk assessment so that suitable control measures can be implemented. A landlord should have an understanding of which systems are hazardous, and which are low risk.
You can complete a legionella awareness training course online. The course will cover low-risk systems such as combi boilers, point of use water heaters and domestic sized water storage tanks.
A legionella risk assessment should cover all water systems in your rental property. A simple risk assessment should be carried out, and the assessment will likely show a minimal risk. If the risk assessment evidences that the risk is minimal, then health and safety law does not require any further action. The risk assessment should be filed and checked when any changes to the water systems are made.
Simple control measures can help control the risk of exposure to legionella, such as:
- Flushing out the system prior to letting the property.
- Avoiding debris getting into the system, for example ensuring the water tanks have a tight-fitting lid.
- Setting control parameters for the temperature of the water.
- Ensuring any redundant pipework identified is removed.
The responsible person completing the risk assessment should understand the water systems and any associated equipment in order to conclude whether the system is likely to create a risk from exposure to legionella, and they should be able to identify:
- How water is stored and recirculated.
- What the water temperature is within the system.
- If there is any rust, sludge, scale and organic matter that has been identified or if it is likely.
- If bacteria can multiply easily.
- If it is possible for water droplets to be produced and if they could be dispersed over a wide area, for example showers and cooling towers.
- If it is likely that any of your employees, residents or visitors are more susceptible to infection due to age or a weakened immune system and whether they could be exposed to any contaminated water droplets.
To access a legionella risk assessment checklist please visit our knowledge base.
Do landlords have to do a legionella risk assessment?
The law is clear that if you are a landlord and rent out your property, even if this is just a room within your own home, that you have legal responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of your tenant by keeping your property safe and free from health hazards.
It is a legal requirement that a landlord carries out a risk assessment of the property that assesses the risk of exposure to legionella. The risk assessment must consider the domestic hot and cold water systems, water tanks, water heaters and the water temperature.
The requirement stems from the control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1989; section 3 (2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes provision for the legislation to apply to landlords of both business and domestic premises. All water systems require an assessment of the risk. Landlords can carry this out themselves if they are competent or employ somebody else to do so.
If you decide to employ someone to carry out the legionella risk assessment on your behalf, you should expect to give a few basic details initially, such as the size and nature of your building as well as some information about your water systems. You should then receive a basic quote. The expert should then arrange to visit your site to carry out the full survey. The samples should then be sent to a laboratory for testing.
Once the results are back from the laboratory, you should receive a full and detailed report of their findings along with recommendations for your next steps. The duration of a professional legionella risk assessment varies from property to property. Your assessor will need to take a digital temperature reading of every hot and cold tap in the property and a reading of outlet pipes from water tanks.
They will also visually inspect every tap and showerhead, report on redundant pipework and flexible hoses, and access any water tanks in the loft. If the property has a garden with an exterior tap, it must be tested for limescale, and outdoor hoses will be inspected as well.
Testing or sampling water for legionella bacteria is not a legal requirement for landlords, but it is typically part of a legionella risk assessment completed by a professional.
The Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) has concerns that many landlords fail to complete a legionella risk assessment, even though it is a legal requirement for them to do so. Even if a property is considered to be low risk, ARLA has actively instructed its members to carry out routine risk assessments whether or not they feel it is needed.
The assessments can potentially save lives and can prevent the landlord from incurring huge fines from tenants who fall ill from legionnaires’ disease as a result of becoming infected from the water system in their property.
When should a landlord complete a legionella risk assessment?
For rental properties with water systems that could pose a potential legionella risk, it is recommended that a legionella risk assessment is carried out every two years or before a new tenancy begins. Most rented properties will be low risk but it is important that risk assessments are carried out and control measures introduced.
More complex water systems and water systems assessed as being high risk should be reviewed much more frequently. For cooling towers or other complex systems, this should be every three months.
Larger buildings often have more complex plumbing systems which make it easier for legionella bacteria to grow. There are also more opportunities for the bacteria to spread due to the scale of large plumbing systems in comparison to a smaller home water system.
How often must a landlord do a legionella risk assessment?
The law does not state that the risk assessment be reviewed on an annual basis but it is important to review the assessment periodically in case anything changes. Where there are any difficulties gaining access to occupied housing units, appropriate checks can be made by carrying out inspections of the water system. This could be done when undertaking mandatory visits such as gas safety checks or routine maintenance visits.
Legionella risk assessments should be reviewed regularly, approximately every two years or before a new tenancy begins, or if conditions change such as:
- Changes to building use.
- Significant changes to the water system.
- Availability of new guidance.
HSE and Local Authority inspectors do not proactively inspect domestic premises or ask for evidence that landlords have undertaken a risk assessment. However, if a tenant were to contract legionnaires’ disease from the water system within the property they are renting, the landlord may be liable for prosecution under HSWA (Health and Safety at Work), and the landlord would have to provide evidence to a court that they have fulfilled their legal duty.
A record should be kept of all identified hazards and their control measures, and details of who the duty holder is and a description of the water system. These records should be retained for at least two years. Landlords should also retain records of any monitoring, inspections, tests or checks carried out, and their dates, for at least five years. You can access a free government brief guide for duty holders.