With so many activities going on in the education sector, it’s easy for things to be overlooked in a school, university or other academic institution. However, failing to control your legionella risk could put students and pupils in danger – and expose your organisation to the severe consequences of non-compliance.
In common with any other business or employer, organizations working in the education sector have a legal duty to control the risk of Legionella on their premises. Failing to meet these responsibilities could result in sizable fines and immediate closure.
Do you understand your responsibilities? Do you know why the education sector is especially at risk? And are you confident you are taking the appropriate steps to keep students safe? If you answered no to any of these questions, read this blog for some practical guidance.
What is Legionnaires Disease?
Legionella is a naturally occurring bacteria found in water. When favourable conditions are allowed to develop within buildings the bacteria can proliferate and potentially colonise the water system.
When water is used, i.e. a running tap or flushing a toilet, very fine droplets of water are released, known as aerosol, which can carry the bacteria in the air. If a person breathes in aerosol that contains legionella bacteria they may develop legionellosis, which is a collective term for diseases caused by the legionella bacteria, such as Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac Fever.
Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia to which certain groups are more susceptible than others and, although anyone can catch Legionnaires’ disease, new-born babies, males, smokers, over the fifties, immuno-compromised and those with underlying health issues are more at risk.
Legionnaires’ disease is very similar to other types of pneumonia (lung infection), with symptoms that include:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle aches
Conditions and contributing factors to legionella bacteria growth include:
- Temperatures between 20°C-45°C
- Available nutrients (including sediment, biofilm, algae, scale, rust, material, etc.)
- Presence of biofilm on surfaces of water
- Poor or inadequate management including training and awareness
Why are educational premises at risk of Legionella outbreak?
Legionella bacteria can grow in any hot and cold water system with the right conditions. However, educational settings often face specific challenges that increase risk levels.
Many institutions have a fairly high Legionella risk profile, given the complexity of their facilities. Older buildings that may have had many additions and extensions over the years are likely to have plumbing systems with a bit of a patchwork of pipework, perhaps long runs of pipe, dead legs or blind ends. There may be numerous water tanks, calorifiers, pumps and other equipment dotted around the site rather than a central plant room which you’d expect to find in a modern purpose-built school. The more complex the plumbing, the higher the risk of Legionella.
Meanwhile, some outlets and parts of the water system may not be used all year round. Swimming pools may only be open for the warmer months, while old showers in PE changing rooms may have been untouched for years on end.
Another risk factor to consider is the pupil profile in schools. While those most at risk from Legionnaires’ disease are aged over 50, and children are usually very low risk, anyone with an underlying health condition or respiratory problems is at high risk. An increasing number of children fall into the ‘higher risk’ category as the number of children diagnosed with asthma and other bronchial conditions continue to increase.
Also, schools close periodically throughout the year leaving the school out of use or used more sparsely. This has an impact on water consumption and can lead to considerable stagnant water. This combined with poor temperatures can lead to the rapid growth of Legionella.
Legislation & Guidance
It is the responsibility of the duty holder or those in control of the premises to ensure the health and safety of their students, employees or others who may get affected. This includes taking suitable precautions to prevent, manage and control the risk of exposure to legionella.
All premises are required to have a written scheme and a legionella risk assessment for controlling any identified risks in accordance with HSE’s guidelines.
In Ireland, HPSC National Guidelines for the Control of Legionellosis in Ireland, 2009 is the principle document defining the controls required in respect to the risks from legionella bacteria.
This involves examining every aspect of your hot and cold water systems, understanding how your systems are used throughout the year, and building a profile of your risk level. While this can be conducted by any qualified person, most schools and universities work with an external partner for the specialist knowledge a full risk assessment requires.
After determining your risk, you are responsible for implementing the appropriate controls, safeguards, and immediate actions to lower your risk if necessary. This could include anything from system flushing and cleaning to recommending changes to your system and how it is used.
How to Manage Risk?
Legionella control and regulatory compliance for schools, colleges, universities and other education premises is an essential organisational risk management process that must be carefully managed.
Regardless of the level of care or the standards to be applied, the key to managing the risk is the implementation of the following five steps, as advocated under the HPSC National Guidelines of Control of Legionellosis in Ireland and ACOP L8:
- Appoint a manager to be responsible for others (appointment of responsible person);
- Identify and assess sources of risk (i.e. carry out risk assessments);
- Prepare a scheme to prevent or control risk (written scheme of control);
- Implement, manage and monitor the scheme of precautions;
- Keep records of the precautions.
The written scheme of control (WSOC) details who does what, and how; it needs to specify measures to take to ensure that risk assessment remains effective and should be laid out clearly in an easily accessible manner.
When introducing a control scheme to manage legionella risk you must follow the correct procedure to ensure that your responsibilities, as the person in charge of the premises, are met.
It is critical to understand if different steps need to be taken at different times of the year. The summer holidays see many schools, colleges and universities closed, with very few staff and students around. This means taps and other water outlets that are used regularly at other times of the year can be left unused for weeks and this can lead to stagnation of the water, which can, in turn, encourage the growth of unwanted bacteria, including legionella.
As such, the legionella risk assessment should identify this and recommend control measures that will ensure the system remains safe throughout the year – not just during term times. Additional flushing and cleaning measures may be required during holiday periods.
Legionella Risk Assessments for Education Sector
A legionella risk assessment is your starting point as you must know where the sources of risk lie. Are some areas more prone than others to allowing legionella and other bacteria to grow? Anywhere that generates a water spray that could be inhaled would be a risk. Similarly, taps, showerheads, and other outlets that are infrequently used would be at greater risk of a higher level of legionella bacteria.
This type of in-depth assessment makes it easier to understand how to manage, maintain, and treat the system.
The legionella risk assessment will:
- Identify and assess likely sources of risk
- Recommend schemes to help control the risk
- Suggest a suitable routine monitoring program
- Establish lines of responsibility
- Identify training deficiencies
- Provide recommendations
A legionella risk assessment will also include the review of your current records and a check of your previous assessments to ensure that all recommendations of remedial work or maintenance have been acted upon.
How We Can Help You?
When the right conditions are present, legionella bacteria can quickly grow and colonize any water system. It is critical to managing legionella risks in schools, colleges and other educational buildings if you are to ensure staff, students and others are safe from the effects of Legionnaires’ disease. Control measures must be put in place to make sure nothing goes wrong.
Celtic Water Solutions is a leading water hygiene service provider in Ireland offering a comprehensive range of water safety risk management solutions. Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the ongoing management of water systems in your facility.
We support institutions, schools, colleges and universities to comply with legislation and most importantly reducing risk to their people including staff and students. Our primary objective has been to create long-term working relationships so that our clients benefit from our experience, knowledge and expertise.
Contact us today to learn more about our service.
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