Legionella bacteria are found in the natural environment and may contaminate. They are widespread in rivers, lakes and water systems where temperature of the water is moderate and conditions favorable for their growth. They survive low temperatures and thrive at temperatures between 20 – 45°C if the conditions are right but are killed by high temperatures at 60°C or above.
All man-made hot and cold water systems are likely to provide an environment where Legionella can grow particularly in stored or recirculated water as droplets (aerosols) are produced and dispersed. Rust, sludge, scale, biofilm are some of the food for the organism to grow and with it the bacteria may multiply thus increasing the risk of exposure.
Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia caused by the inhalation of small droplets of contaminated water containing Legionella, which can be fatal. Stored and recirculated water contains a particular and a higher level of presence of such a risk. People can catch the disease by inhaling small droplets of water which may be suspended in the air and contain the bacteria.
What should landlords and agents be aware of?
Landlords and agents should be aware that legionella bacteria can multiply in hot or cold water systems and water storage tanks. The bacteria can be spread via showers and taps, especially if they have not been used for some time.
The risk assessments must assess the risk and identify potential sources of exposure, followed by, if necessary, and steps to prevent or control any of the identified risks. A risk assessment involves assessing whether conditions are right for bacteria to flourish.
It is usually acceptable for risk assessments to be carried out by agents or landlords but in the first instance landlords may consider having a professional assessment carried out on all their properties, to be followed-up by annual assessments themselves.
Tenants who are older than 45 years, smokers and heavy drinkers, those suffering chronic respiratory or kidney disease, and anyone with an impaired immune system is at greater risk of infection.
Safeguards may involve disinfecting water systems, cleaning shower heads, servicing air conditioning units, removing or stagnant water pools and water tanks from systems, insulating pipework, and keeping water cisterns properly covered and free of debris.
Landlords and agents should issue tenants with notices advising them about these risks and how to combat them by running water off and cleaning shower heads regularly.
When landlords and agents advise tenants to raise water temperatures to reduce the risk of legionella, there’s an increased risk of burns and scalding. It all sound very onerous on landlords or agents but these risk assessment are usually straightforward and not as bad as they seem, though specialists would perhaps have other arguments.
Most small systems only need a risk assessment and no further action required, but having the evidence available that the risk assessment has in fact been carried out is important.
Who should do this assessment?
The law is clear that if you are a landlord and rent out your property or even a room within your own home then you have the legal responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of your tenant by keeping the property safe and free from health hazards.
Letting agents and landlords are obliged by law to carry out risk assessments for legionnaire’s disease, and if necessary, take action.
Where a property is under full management by a professional agent, then clearly the agent has responsibility for meeting these legal requirements. However, where the landlords is managing the property him or herself, then the landlords takes on that responsibility along with all the other legal requirements such as annual gas checks etc.
Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) pose a greater risk here and the “responsible person” the person who has the duty to manage the property is obliged to carry out a risk assessment for this risk. However, landlord or individual buy-to-let properties are also affected.
Although an individual house or flat generally poses no greater risk for legionella than an owner occupied property, unless there are unusual circumstances, nevertheless there is still a risk which must now be addressed by all landlords and agents.
The Government has nothing else to do but introduce a new law every day
This is not a new requirement. The law called the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) is in place since 1974. Section 3 (2) read together with Section 53 of the said Act lays down relevant health and safety legislation applicable to landlords to ensure a duty of care is shown to their tenants and that they are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 provides a framework of actions to control the risk from a range of hazardous substances, including biological agents (e.g. Legionella) and to identify and assess the risk, and implement any necessary measures to control any risk.
Since the L8 Approved Code of Practice was published in 2001, there has been a requirement for landlords of both domestic and business premises to assess the risks from exposure to Legionella to their tenants revised and republished in November 2013 but retained the guidance for those with responsibilities for the control of premises including landlords. There has been no change to UK legislation.
Specifically this law applies to the control of Legionella bacteria in any undertaking involving a work activity and applies to premises controlled in connection with a trade, business or other undertaking where water is used or stored and there is a reasonably foreseeable risk of exposure to Legionella bacteria.
What to do?
Landlords are under a duty to ensure that the risk of exposure to tenants, residents and visitors by Legionella is properly assessed and controlled.
The practical and proportionate application of health and safety law to landlords of domestic rental properties is that whilst there is a duty to assess the risk from exposure to Legionella to ensure the safety of their tenants, this does not require an in-depth, detailed assessment.
Would the Risk Assessment be a costly exercise?
Normally there is no reason why the landlord should not carry out this risk assessment himself/herself so long as they are competent to do so. Usually there is or will be no need to employ a consultant as the risk assessment should be a straight forward simple exercise in ordinary domestic premises.
Some consultants and letting agents are misinterpreting or misunderstanding landlord’s responsibilities regarding legionella risks.
They are claiming that Guidance from HSE is somehow new legislation imposing new requirements on residential landlords. This is wrong. The HSE themselves say that the legislation has not been changed and any misinterpretation / misunderstanding can impose unnecessary financial burdens on landlords where they have been charged for legionella testing certificates that they do not actually need.
HSE emphasise that legionella testing/sampling is generally not required in domestic hot water systems and then only in exceptional circumstances.
Conducting a simple risk assessment exercise
A simple assessment may show that there are no real risks and are being properly managed and no further action is needed. The risks from hot and cold water systems in most residential settings are generally considered to be low owing to regular water usage and turnover. The risk assessment will apply to houses or flats with small domestic type water systems where the water turnover is high. A typical ‘low risk’ example may be found in
• a small building (eg housing unit), with small domestic-type water systems, where daily water usage is inevitable & sufficient to turnover the entire system;
• where cold water is directly from wholesome mains supply (no stored water tanks);
• where hot water is fed from instantaneous heaters or low volume water heaters (supplying outlets at 50 °C); and
• where the only outlets are toilets and wash hand basins.
Implementing simple, proportionate and appropriate control measures will ensure the risk remains low. For most domestic hot and cold water systems, temperature is the most reliable way of ensuring the risk of exposure to Legionella bacteria is minimised ie keep the hot water hot, cold water cold and keep it moving. The risk is further lowered where instantaneous water heaters (for example combi-boilers and electric showers) are installed because there is no water storage.
Other simple control measures to help control the risk of exposure to Legionella are:
• flushing out the system prior to letting the property
• avoiding debris getting into the system (eg ensure the cold water tanks, where fitted, have a tight fitting lid)
• setting control parameters (eg setting the temperature of the hot water cylinder (calorifier) to ensure water is stored at 60°C)
• make sure any redundant pipework identified is removed.
• greatest risk is where water is present at temperatures between 20C and 45C.
If the risk assessment results shows that the risks are insignificant and the control measures are being properly managed no further action would be necessary. It is important, however, to keep the assessment under review periodically in case anything changes to the system.
What your tenant needs to know
Tenants should be advised of any control measures put in place that should be maintained:-
• not to adjust the temperature setting of the calorifier,
• to regularly clean showerheads and
• inform the landlord if the hot water is not heating properly or there are
• any other problems with the system so that appropriate action can be taken.
Where showers are installed, these have the means of creating and dispersing water droplets (aerosols) which may be inhaled causing a foreseeable risk of exposure to Legionella.
If used regularly (as in the majority of most domestic settings) the risks are reduced but in any case, tenants should be advised to regularly clean and disinfect showerheads. Instantaneous electric showers pose less of a risk as they are generally cold water-fed and heat only small volumes of water during operation.
Additional actions for properties left vacant
It is important that water is not allowed to stagnate within the water system and so there should be careful management of properties left vacant for extended periods (eg student accommodation left empty over the summer vacation). As a general principle, outlets on hot and cold water systems should be used at least once a week to maintain a degree of water flow and minimise the chances of stagnation. To manage the risks during non-occupancy, consideration should be given to implementing a suitable flushing regime or other measures such as draining the system if it is to remain vacant for long periods.
Who can assess the risk?
In most cases, the actions landlords need to take are simple and straightforward so compliance does not need to be burdensome or costly.
Most landlords can assess the risk themselves and do not need to be professionally trained or accredited; but if they do not feel competent, or inclined to do so, they can arrange for someone who is to do it on their behalf.
Most landlords are able to understand the set of risks of running a hot and cold water system in a way that provides the above conditions; and would also be able to implement cheap, simple and effective physical control measures required to minimise the risk of the system becoming colonised with Legionella and other microorganisms.
Testing (or sampling) the water system for Legionella
Testing or sampling for Legionella (sometimes referred to as microbiological monitoring) is not usually required for domestic hot and cold water systems, but only in very specific circumstances.
Testing for Legionella should not be confused with temperature monitoring, which is a reliable method for confirming the water system is under control.
Health and safety law does NOT require landlords to obtain, produce nor does HSE recognise a ‘Legionella test certificate’.
Keeping a record of the assessment
Landlords are not necessarily required to record the findings of the assessment (this is only a statutory duty for employers where there are five or more employees), but they may find it prudent to keep a record of what has been done for their own purposes.
It is recommended that annual risk assessments is carried out and insists that landlords and agents keep records of these for at least five years.
Reviewing your risk assessment
The law does not prescribe that the risk assessment be reviewed on an annual or biennial basis. It is important to review the assessment periodically in case anything changes but where there are difficulties gaining access to occupied housing units, appropriate checks can be made by carrying out inspections of the water system, for example, when undertaking mandatory visits such as gas safety checks or routine maintenance visits.
Are domestic properties proactively inspected?
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 in their home, the landlord may be liable to prosecution under HSWA, and would have to demonstrate to a court that they had fulfilled their legal duty, so it is important that they assess and control the risks.
• Care4properties can help you with Legionella compliance.
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