homeWednesday 30th September 2020

Fall in council legionella checks

Corin Williams12/09/2012 - 13:00

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40% of councils have not checked towers in past five years
40% of councils have not checked towers in past five years

Nearly half of English local authorities responsible for cooling towers have not carried out any pro-active legionella risk inspections within the past five years, according to exclusive EHN research.

The figures also revealed an estimated 50 per cent of councils have reduced their number of pro-active legionella risk inspections for both cooling towers and other potentially hazardous water systems within the past five years.

Joan Walley, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and a CIEH vice president, raised the findings in the House of Commons and called for ‘pre-emptive inspections’ to be made the ‘basis’ of public health action.

She told MPs that cutting inspections, which are seen by some as a ‘unnecessary burden’ on business, raised questions whether that would be ‘someone else’s death sentence’.

EHN obtained the figures from freedom of information requests to all councils responsible for health and safety inspections in England. In all, 266 authorities responded.

Forty per cent said they had not carried out any cooling tower legionella inspections in the past five years.

Two serious legionnaires’ disease outbreaks occurred over the summer in Edinburgh and Stoke-on-Trent, leading to the deaths of four people. Whereas the probable source of the Edinburgh outbreak was traced to a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforced cooling tower, the Stoke-on-Trent outbreak was blamed on spa display at a council-enforced retail outlet.

It transpired that the HSE had not inspected the Edinburgh cooling tower for at least five years.

Ms Walley said: ‘We ignore the preventative approach to public health at our peril. With responsibility split between local authorities, HSE and the NHS, routine pre-emptive inspections should be the basis of our concerted actions to prevent contamination.

‘Government ministers must rethink their clarion call for deregulation and be accountable for the guidance they issue and the respective funding needed as a matter of course for routine monitoring and enforcement.'

Many EHOs who responded to the FOI request blamed the decrease in inspections on changes to risk based rating system, the LAC 67/2 circular, which was introduced by the HSE in 2010 as part of government policy to reduce the frequency of interventions.

One principal EHO said: ‘Guidance issued to HSE and local authorities indicated that proactive programmed inspections should only take place at A and B1 rated premises. This was revised last year to only A premises.

‘Superimposed over the top of this is the aim of central government reducing inspections by 25 per cent. So in short proactive inspections have reduced over the last five years mostly on the back of government departmental policy.’

Another EHO said: ‘I cannot give you an exact figure for proactive inspections regarding legionnalla risks, however each of the council swimming pools have been inspected at least once every year to include legionnella risks - under the new HSE guidance these pools would not be inspected again.’

The survey revealed councils are responsible for a quarter of notifiable devices in England - including cooling towers and evaporative condensers – with the HSE responsible for monitoring the remaining 75 per cent. It was also found not every council’s register of notifiable devices was fully up-to-date.

Some authorities bucked the national downward trend, with an estimated 15 per cent increasing their legionella risk inspections. In some cases the council said it was taking action in direct response to the Edinburgh and Stoke-on-Trent outbreaks.

In the House of Commons Ms Walley called for a ‘very clear statement’ on the role of the HSE in helping to prevent further legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.

In response Mark Hoban, the new employment minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, said the HSE was taking a ‘very proactive stance’.

He added: ‘It is issuing guidance to stakeholders and others, but also to ensure there is a risk-based approach towards inspections focusing on those installations that are likely to cause the highest risk of legionella. We are taking action to tackle this and also to put aside the risks as a consequence of the changes that we are making.’

Graham Jukes, CIEH chief executive, said: 'In the light of changes to risk rating criteria and reduced inspection frequencies by regulators, government needs to redouble its efforts to reinforce the message that it is business who are responsible for compliance and they will be called to account for outbreaks as and when they occur.

'If anything this rebalancing of risks puts a greater onus on business to get it right. The question is without the advice and guidance given by regulators will they have the knowledge, understanding and drive to respond to this very real public health challenge?'

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