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Outcry over lack of legionella inspections

Corin Williams20/06/2012 - 13:00

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Cooling tower checks help prevent legionella
Cooling tower checks help prevent legionella

Leading public health expert Prof Hugh Pennington has said he is ‘shocked’ after it was revealed the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had not inspected an Edinburgh business for legionella risks for at least five years before it was shut down in the wake of the recent outbreak.

The Prospect trade union, which represents HSE staff, has also called on the government to reverse its policy to cut proactive health and inspection services by a third.

Two people have now died since the legionnaires disease outbreak began on 28 May. To date there are 42 confirmed cases and 47 suspected cases.

The North British Distillery was one of two businesses served with improvement notices over management of legionella risks in cooling towers. Responding to a Parliamentary question, health and safety minister Chris Grayling said the HSE had conducted ‘no specific visits to assess the management of legionella risks’ at the site between 2007 and 2012.

A pharmaceutical business served with an improvement notice by the HSE, Macfarlan Smith Ltd, had been assessed for management of legionella risks in February 2010.

Mr Grayling is spearheading the government’s ‘better regulation’ policies, which include stopping proactive health and safety inspections of what are considered to be low-risk businesses.

Prof Pennington, who conducted the inquiry into the Wales 2005 E. coli outbreak, told EHN: ‘I am amazed and shocked that no inspections had been done since 2007 to assess the legionella prevention measures at the North British Distillery - which has three cooling towers located in a densely populated area of Edinburgh inhabited by many individuals particularly at risk from developing severe legionnaires’ disease.

‘This takes “light touch regulation” and the “reduction of red tape” to a new low.’

Prof Pennington added that the majority of businesses implemented safety systems, similar to Haccp, to manage the risk of legionella.

But he said: ‘A minority do not. A major role of inspection is to detect them and induce improvement or take sterner measures, either way ensuring the removal of risks to public health.

‘It is reasonable to say that the Grayling answer indicates that inspection frequencies are already too low. It has to be concluded that any further reduction will aid legionella.’

The Prospect union criticised both the government for cutting funding to the HSE and Mr Grayling for instructing the HSE to reduce the number of proactive workplace inspections by a third.

Prospect HSE branch chair Simon Hester said: ‘The field operations division of HSE regulates in the region of 900,000 workplaces. The year before last the HSE inspected 33,000 premises. For the year ending April 2012 they were in the region of 20,000.

‘A whole series of industries have been deemed to be low-risk and therefore not worthy of a proactive inspection. Some of those industries will have cooling towers as normal. They are not now being proactively inspected.

‘Our concern is that with fewer checks, industry starts to get the impression they will never be visited, and therefore standards will fall.’

‘We’ve raised concerns directly with the minister and generally with the government. We would like to see a reversal of the decision to limit proactive inspections to certain industries, and we want to see an increase of resources to the HSE to fund more inspections.

‘We know ministers are listening, but whether they will do anything about it, I doubt.’

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said the HSE had commissioned research into past outbreaks to look at how to ensure companies meet their legal obligations to manage risks from legionella.

She said: ‘Many premises with the potential for legionella risks are regulated by local authorities and HSE will continue to work closely with them in developing and delivering interventions.

‘Achieving and maintaining control of this risk on a day-to-day basis is a matter for the company. Regulatory inspections focus on whether an effective management system is in place and are not a substitute for employers maintaining a consistent treatment and monitoring regime.’

Mr Grayling this week launched a ‘progress report’ on the implementation of the government’s health and safety reforms. In it he stated that the reforms would create a ‘simpler, more effective regulatory framework’ that would maintain the ‘progress that has been made in health and safety outcomes.’

The City of Edinburgh Council has also served an improvement notice on the National Museum of Scotland as part of the ongoing legionella investigation.

A spokesperson said: ‘The improvement notice relates solely to the training of staff and not to the operation of cooling towers.’

The council told EHN that the number of EHOs employed in the city had fallen from 61 in 2009/10 to 44 this year.

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