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Legionella inspections collapse

Corin Williams08/08/2012 - 13:00

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HSE legionella inspections have fallen
HSE legionella inspections have fallen

Leading bacteriologist Prof Hugh Pennington has called for a public inquiry into the Edinburgh legionella outbreak and a ‘root and branch’ review of regulatory policy following an EHN investigation.

Figures released to EHN indicate the number of legionella inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has fallen by 44 per cent over the past three years.

Prof Pennington, who conducted the inquiry into the 2005 Wales E. coli outbreak, joined the Scottish Labour Party in calling for an independent inquiry into the legionella incident, which lead to the deaths of three people.

Following a request from EHN under Environmental Information Regulations, the HSE said the total level of pro-active inspections – excluding those by the Office of Nuclear Regulation – fell from 833 in 2009 to 464 in 2011.

The number of legionella inspections at cooling towers fell from 237 in 2010 to 134 in 2011. The HSE said there were around 5,800 notified cooling sites in the UK, of which an estimated 2,900 undergo inspections by HSE rather than the local authority.

According to recent HSE research, 90 per cent of outbreaks over the past 10 years were caused by businesses failing to identify risks and implementing effective control schemes.

The figures showed the number of inspections had in fact been rising until 2009. Pam Waldron, HSE director in Scotland and Northern England, also said the total number of inspections were an ‘underestimate’ because legionella ‘may not be recorded’ if there were no matters of concern at a site.

She added: ‘HSE staff have also been involved in a significant number of investigations over the same period.’

But Prof Pennington told EHN: ‘It shows a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. The great majority of cooling towers can only be having inspections once every ten years, some probably less frequently, and the number of inspections fell significantly in 2011.

‘Coupled with the Edinburgh outbreak, these statistics indicate the need for a root and branch review of legionnaires’ regulatory policy. After all, it is a preventable disease but one with a significant mortality.’

Health Protection Agency (HPA) statistics show that the number of deaths from legionnaires’ disease has halved over the past three years. The percentage of deaths compared to cases also fell from 13 to 8 per cent over the past three years.

Prof Pennington added: ‘That mortality figures have come down in recent years is mainly due to improvements in intensive care, probably the most expensive part of the NHS. Added expense in improving regulation would be significantly offset by health budget savings.’

Angry victims of the Edinburgh legionnaires’ disease outbreak have also instigated legal proceedings, and police were asked to investigate the outbreak in Stoke-on-Trent.

A man in his 70s who was being treated in hospital for legionnaires’ disease in Stoke-on-Trent died on 4 August. Last week the HPA said the likely cause of the outbreak was a hot tub display at a branch of retailers JTF Warehouse. The total number of cases stands at 20.

Last month Richard Griffin, 64, of Westbury Park, died from the disease during the outbreak.

Staffordshire Police were asked to investigate the matter by the HSE, but a spokesperson said: ‘We have reviewed the information provided to us and at this stage will not be carrying out an investigation. We will continue to receive updates about the matter from the local authority.’

In response to local MP Joan Walley, who is also a CIEH vice president, the HSE said it was responsible for inspecting five cooling towers in the area. Of these, two had been inspected in 2009 and one further since 2010.

Thompsons Solicitors said they had been contacted by victims of the Edinburgh outbreak over ‘serious concerns’ of the ability of the Scottish Government an official bodies to identify, manage and prevent potential outbreaks.

Health and safety specialist partner at the firm Patrick McGuire said he backed calls for an independent public inquiry.

He added: ‘What lies at the very heart of it all is human error. Bad practice and poor performance exacerbated by attempts to cut budgets have made an already dangerous situation potentially lethal.’

CIEH chief executive Graham Jukes said: ‘Clearly in this area of work businesses are not playing their part in maintaining the necessary controls to prevent point sources for legionella being created.

‘Health and safety regulation is there for a purpose and either resources should be made available to increase the awareness of businesses to their primary responsibility or to increase the inspection resource. Failure to do either will result in further tragedy that could be prevented.’

The Department of Work and Pensions was approached for comment on this story.

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