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Legionnaires – risk management and insurance guidance

Published: 16/07/12

The recent Legionnaires disease outbreak has led insurers to offer advice on potential liabilities and business interruptions that can befall any organisation operating cooling towers, evaporative condensers, spa pools, hot and cold water systems and other purpose-built systems that involve use of water. What is it?

Legionnaires is a potentially fatal disease, with pneumonia like symptoms and caused by legionella bacteria. It is caught by inhaling air born droplets of water that contain the bacteria. It is not known to spread from person to person. Whilst widespread in rivers and ponds, outbreaks of the illness usually occur from exposure to legionella growing in purpose-built systems where water is maintained at a temperature within the range that encourages growth. The following conditions increase the risk presented by the presence of legionella bacteria in water systems:

  • Water temperature between 20–45 °C (optimal temperature for the bacteria growth).
  • Creating and spreading breathable droplets of water, e.g. aerosol created by a cooling tower.
  • Stagnant, stored and/or re-circulated water.
  • A food source for the bacteria, e.g. presence of sludge or scale

Implications of an outbreak
If an outbreak occurs, it is likely the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will launch an investigation in an attempt to identify the source. This will usually involve inspections of businesses operating systems that involve the use of water.

In many instances the cause of an outbreak is never conclusively identified. However, the investigation may lead to the HSE identifying failings in an organisation’s management systems relating to the control of legionella bacteria. As a result, they may issue Improvement or Prohibition Notices or even initiate prosecutions.

The whole process of HSE investigations, compliance with Improvement or Prohibition Notices or dealing with a prosecution can severely disrupt operations and require unplanned shut down of certain processes or equipment. Inevitably they can also cost time and money and cause damage to reputation. If liability for the outbreak is proven, then the organisation concerned may face compensation claims from persons who contracted the disease (or their families). If there is a chance that your operations could contribute to Legionnaires then obviously we need to know and check that you have appropriate cover in place. Similarly, in the event of a claim you must talk to us first so that we can guide you through the process.

Risk management guidance If you are an employer, or someone in control of premises, including landlords, you are required by law to manage the health risks associated with legionella bacteria. In broad terms, this means you need to:

1. Undertake a risk assessment
You need to understand your water systems and associated equipment and determine whether they are likely to create a risk from exposure to legionella bacteria. If you determine that there is a risk, then you need to identify any employees and/or other persons who may be particularly at risk. If you do not feel competent to carry out this risk assessment, you can take external advice.

2. Prevent, control and monitor the risk
Prevention is always best - consider whether you can prevent the risk of legionella bacteria by changing the type of water system you need. (This is probably most likely to be possible at the design stage of any premises). The HSE gives the example of replacing a wet cooling tower with a dry air-cooled system. If you identify a risk that you are unable to prevent, you must take action to control the growth and multiplication of legionella bacteria. This includes:

  • Ensuring water cannot stagnate anywhere in the system.
  • Ensuring the release of water spray is properly controlled.
  • Avoiding water temperatures and conditions that enable the growth of legionella bacteria.
  • Keeping the system and the water in it clean through removal of scale and sludge, etc.
  • Avoiding materials that encourage the growth of legionella bacteria.
  • Treating water to kill legionella bacteria or limit their ability to grow.
  • Monitoring and auditing the effectiveness of your controls, including through regular inspection and testing.
In all instances consult Flint for advice if your organisation is unsure about its exposure to Legionnellas disease. Tony Cracroft is a member of our Commercial Team and will be able to help; contact Tony on 0834 371 1452 or email tonycracroft@flintinsurance.co.uk


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