Over the Summer months there have been two outbreaks of Legionella which have prompted investigations. The first was in Edinburgh in May which resulted in over 100 suspected cases of Legionnaires’ disease, including 3 deaths. The cases prompted a widespread investigation to locate the source of the outbreak which was subsequently narrowed down to cooling towers. An Improvement Notice was subsequently served on North British Distillery Company Ltd, with a further two Improvement Notices served on Macfarlan Smith Ltd for deficiencies in their respective cooling towers. The HSE made clear that they could not confirm whether the source of the outbreak came from any of the towers.
The second outbreak occurred weeks later in Staffordshire in July and led to 20 cases of the disease and two subsequent deaths. The outbreak source was traced to a hot tub in the Stoke-on-Trent branch of the JTF Mega Discount Warehouse, which was subsequently decommissioned during the course of the HSE investigation.
The Legionella bacteria is one which thrives in areas such as cooling towers and evaporative water condensers when at a temperature of between 20–45°C. However the bacteria is easily eliminated by increasing the temperature to 60°C. The fact that the bacteria can be controlled so easily underlines the importance of ensuring that regular monitoring takes place. Following the two outbreaks, the HSE have issued two safety notices reminding the operators of cooling towers, evaporative condensers and hot and cold water systems of the need to ensure regular monitoring and maintenance as such plan and equipment has been found to be the most common source of outbreaks.
The outbreaks follow the recent prosecution of Pontins who were fined £1,000 after two guests contracted Legionnaires’ disease during a stay at a Lytham St Annes holiday centre. An investigation by Fylde Council found that the water temperatures for storage heat exchangers noted in the park’s records were consistently below recommended temperatures. This had allowed the Legionella bacteria to thrive, yet no action had been taken. There was a further failure to act after the first guest became ill in May 2009, despite the site safety advisor raising concern about the temperatures. A technical enforcement officer also visited the site after the first guest became ill and warned Pontins that the low temperatures would enable the bacteria to thrive and recommended that they sought advice from Western Environmental who was contracted to help manage the water systems. Notwithstanding these warnings, no steps were taken by Pontins and a second guest contracted Legionnaires’ disease after at stay in July 2009 and subsequently died.
Whilst a charge of Corporate Manslaughter was considered, the CPS felt there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Pontins were subsequently prosecuted for breaches of Sections 2(1) and 3(1) HSWA for failing to ensure the health and safety of employees and exposing non employees to a risk to their health and safety. However, by the time of the prosecution, Pontins had gone into administration and despite entering a Not Guilty plea, no representative of Pontins attended the hearing to put forward a defence. Following a three day hearing, Pontins were convicted and despite the Judge noting that the case highlighted “serious management failings” and a foreseeable risk to serious injury, in the absence of Pontins having any assets he had no option but to impose a nominal fine of £1k with £10k costs which would not be enforced. Had Pontins been trading the Judge indicated that he would have imposed a fine near the £500k mark.
The case emphasises the importance of ensuring that potential sources of Legionnella bacteria are properly maintained and monitored.