What is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria. It is the most well-known and serious form of a group of diseases known as legionellosis. Other similar (but usually less serious) conditions include Pontiac fever and Lochgoilhead fever.
Infection is caused by breathing in small droplets of water contaminated by the bacteria. The disease cannot be passed from one person to another.
Everyone is potentially susceptible to infection but some people are at higher risk, eg those over 45 years of age, smokers and heavy drinkers, those suffering from chronic respiratory or kidney disease, and people whose immune system is impaired.
Where are legionella bacteria found?
Legionella bacteria are common in natural water courses such as rivers and ponds. Since legionella are widespread in the environment, they may contaminate and grow in other water systems such as cooling towers and hot and cold water services.
They survive low temperatures and thrive at temperatures between 20-45°C if the conditions are right, eg if a supply of nutrients is present such as rust, sludge, scale, algae and other bacteria. They are killed by high temperatures.
What are my duties under the law?
Under general health and safety law, you have to consider the risks from legionella that may affect your staff or members of the public and take suitable precautions. As an employer or a person in control of the premises (eg a landlord), you must:
identify and assess sources of risk;
prepare a scheme (or course of action) for preventing or controlling the risk;
implement and manage the scheme – appointing a person to be managerially responsible, sometimes referred to as the ‘responsible person’;
keep records and check that what has been done is effective; and
if appropriate, notify the local authority that you have a cooling tower(s) on site.
If a person working under your control and direction is treated as self-employed for tax and national insurance purposes, they may nevertheless be your employee for health and safety purposes. You may need therefore to take appropriate action to protect them.
If you do not wish to employ workers on this basis, you should seek legal advice. Ultimately each case can only be decided on its own merits by a court of law.
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