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The Consequences of the Edinburgh Legionella Outbreak

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The Edinburgh legionella outbreak has to date resulted in the deaths of three men, with an additional 48 confirmed cases. In total there have been 95 confirmed and suspected cases identified.

Now the Scottish Government and the public are looking for some answers. The HSE and the City of Edinburgh Council have been asked to give evidence about the checks and investigations that take place to prevent an outbreak.

The concern is that as Legionella positive samples are not reported to the HSE, how are the HSE able to follow up on checking whether these sites are actively controlling the levels of bacteria.

Caitriona McEldowney, Senior Legionella Consultant at HBE commented “Legionella bacteria are in our natural environment and it is therefore expected that the bacteria will be found in water systems. The issues we’re talking about here lie around the control and the quality of the water hygiene standards in organisations.

Legionella is essentially an engineering problem. There are risk factors which engineers have created in our building water systems which help Legionella and Pseudomonas bacteria to colonise and grow.

It is therefore the fundamental responsibility of the Building Manager to manage this risk on a daily basis. This is unfortunately where budgets get in the way and compromises are made in what compliance Risk audits, sampling and remedial actions are undertaken.

It is shocking how many organisations have been found to be non-compliant with basic health and safety regulations during these inspections.”

When asked, the HSE told the committee that the Macfarlan Smith site was inspected after the outbreak in February 2010. The company had two improvement notices served as a result of visits carried out after that outbreak. The North British Distillery site was visited in March 2012 for a general inspection.

In addition, Colin Sibbald, Food Health and Safety Manager at the council, advised the committee that a total of 60 sites were visited after the outbreak. Many of these could not have caused the aerosol but he stated that they were being checked to ensure that they had not been infected.

Although the HSE and health inspectors do make visits to some sites, the risk and management of that risk must clearly remain the responsibility of the management and the responsible person within the organisation. Many parties connected with the Edinburgh affair are calling for legislation to make organisations with legionella positive results report these positive results to the HSE.

As Caitriona explains “This proposal is unworkable. Legionella positive samples are often found as it is our natural environment, so the HSE would be inundated with positive results which they would need to follow up on. The organisations that fail to sample or do not take the necessary action on a positive sampling result must be the main focus for the HSE.”

Moving forward, perhaps a solution for the HSE to consider is the creation of a register of the responsible persons within the organisations. In this era of transparency and accountability, if an employee is given the role of responsible person for the water hygiene in an organisation, then they should be registered as the responsible person with the HSE

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