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Government defends legionella controls

Corin Williams03/10/2012 - 13:00

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Mark Hoban
Mark Hoban

New health and safety minister Mark Hoban has claimed the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and councils are developing ‘better control of legionella risks’, after EHN revealed a sharp decline in inspections.

An EHN investigation found a 40 per cent cut in the number proactive legionella inspections at cooling towers carried out by local authorities and a 44 per cent cut in the number carried out by the HSE.

A spokesperson for Mr Hoban told EHN that although it was the government’s policy to concentrate inspections on businesses considered to represent ‘the highest risk’, all duty holders were expected to take responsibility for public safety.

He said: ‘No regulatory regime can act as a substitute for companies meeting their well-established legal duties.

‘When the HSE receives new information or evidence we review that and decide whether further interventions, including inspections, are warranted.’

The spokesperson pointed to research commissioned by the HSE Legionella Committee in 2011, which he said will lead to a ‘range of initiatives’.

He added: ‘These will include the development of ongoing work with industry and advice and information events to promote sustained improvement in standards and ultimately better control of legionella risks.

‘It will also include some compliance checks in the form of targeted inspections where the impact of poorly managed legionella risks could be greatest.

‘These will be a follow up to the safety notice aimed at businesses with cooling towers and evaporative condensers published in July.’

On 19 September the HSE issued a safety notice targeting companies that use hot and cold water systems for bathing and washing, or in manufacturing processes.

HSE legionella expert Paul McDermott said: ‘While the numbers of people potentially affected by poorly maintained water systems and spa pools are likely to be smaller than poorly maintained cooling towers, there can still be fatal consequences. These can't be ignored.’

But health and safety specialist lawyers Irwin Mitchell have questioned whether enough is being done to protect public health and have called for a full public inquiry into the recent outbreaks in Edinburgh and Stoke-on-Trent.

The firm is representing 48 people who were made ill during the outbreaks, as well as families of four victims who died.

Clive Garner, a partner at Irwin Mitchell, said: ‘The release of new guidance on the handling and control of legionella bacteria in water systems is a positive step forward, but questions need to be asked as to whether the progress being made on this issue is genuinely enough to ensure that the terrible problems seen in both Edinburgh and Stoke are not repeated.

‘The evidence we have seen in the past, such as the HSE essentially halving inspections in cooling towers last year and the concerns around the accuracy of basic data on the number cooling towers in operation, shows that further improvements are clearly needed in this area.’

Mr Garner added that a public inquiry would be the best way to ‘ensure adequate steps are being taken to protect the health and wellbeing of the public’.

Giuseppe Orlando, 57, from Werrington in Staffordshire, instructed Irwin Mitchell after suffering from legionnaires’ disease during the Stoke outbreak.

He said: ‘The illness had a major impact on me and I want to know how and why this came to happen.

‘However, it is about more than that – it is about stopping the same problems from affecting anyone else in the future. This safety notice is a welcome step but we have not seen any clear signs that lessons are being learned.’

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