Lawyers Warn Employers To Be Aware Of The Risk Posed By Legionella When Reopening After Lockdown

Guidance For Getting Your Business Safely Out Of Lockdown

Employers across the UK preparing to reopen in June need to be aware of the risk of Legionella, the cause of Legionnaires’ disease, contaminating water supplies after long periods of disuse and ensure employees can return to their workplaces in safety, lawyers have warned.

Water and cooling towers and evaporative condensers lying dormant for months make an ideal breeding ground for the legionella bacteria and public health legal experts at Irwin Mitchell are issuing the safety waring amid concerns the disease may be the last thing on the minds of employers desperate to restart post lockdown business.

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious infection, caused by the legionella bacteria. Usually caught by breathing in droplets of contaminated water as a result of water systems not being maintained properly, the disease can prove fatal or lead to long term medical conditions.

Some cities across the world exiting coronavirus lockdowns have already experienced a higher than expected incidence of Legionnaires’ disease than is usual at this time of year, including Sydney, Australia.

Irwin Mitchell says that employers, restauranteurs and hotel proprietors who are preparing buildings to exit lockdown need to understand that government guidelines on protecting people from Covid-19 do not replace existing health and safety legislation and the legal duty to protect people from risks like legionella remain.

Dr John Lee, a Consultant Microbiologist and a leading expert on legionella, said: “During the Covid-19 lockdown, many water systems in buildings such as hotels, leisure centres, swimming pools, offices and even parts of hospitals and other health care facilities will have been used very little or, at worst, abandoned and left unattended.

“The reduced use or the complete closure of water systems and associated equipment, including hot and cold water, cooling towers and various pools during the lockdown could have encouraged the growth of legionella, the bacteria that cause legionnaires’ disease. 

Even toilet cisterns can build up enormous populations of Legionella when left unused for prolonged periods, so the first person to flush it could be exposed to infection. If this potential growth has not been dealt with adequately before reopening buildings, there is a real risk people may be exposed to infectious aerosols and become infected with Legionnaires’ disease.”

Sarita Sharma, an expert public health lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Through our work, we sadly see many cases demonstrating the devastating consequences of Legionnaires’ disease. There are strict guidelines in place to help control the development of the bacteria that causes the disease and it is important these are followed and those now emerging from months of lockdown do so safely.

“Where it can be established that someone has contracted Legionnaires’ disease because of an employer’s health and safety failings, then a worker’s legal rights remain the same as they were prior to lockdown. In protecting workers from Covid-19, employers still have a legal responsibility to manage the risk of legionella when reinstating a water system or some types of air conditioning.

“Coronavirus is no excuse for complacency when it comes to health and safety and as symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are similar to those of Covid-19, taking necessary steps to prevent the disease are even more important to avoid cases of misdiagnosis during these testing times.”

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