Legionella – Assessing the Risk One Year On

Protecting tenants and workers

A Legionella Risk Assessment is an audit carried out in a property to assess the risk of Legionella bacteria being present in purpose-built water systems, and is a requirement for residential landlords under the HSE’s Code of Practice.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) determines that landlords need to assess and control the risk of Legionella in any water system within a build. They can be prosecuted for breaking the H&S law as determined by the Health & Safety Executive with a £20,000 fine, or imprisonment for the most serious breaches.

While LRAs are common place and well adhered to in the commercial sector, it’s evident that one year on from when we last commented on the importance of LRAs, residential landlords have been slow to address the directive and risks placed on their tenants. There continues to be a belief that it is not a necessary requirement that applies to them, and some letting agents appear not to be pushing their clients to address the risk. 

The HSE’s Code of Practice states that “Landlords who provide residential accommodation, as the person in control of the premises or responsible for the water systems in their premises, have a legal duty to ensure that the risk of exposure to tenants to Legionella is properly assesses and controlled.” 

The Legionella bacteria can cause Pontiac fever, Lochgoilhead fever and, most seriously, Legionnaires’ Disease, a form of pneumonia that is fatal in up to 25% of cases. The disease can be contracted through exposure to airborne bacteria suspended within small water droplets and, although present is natural water courses, purpose-built water systems can present favourable conditions for bacteria to multiply at certain temperatures.

Purpose-built water systems presenting considerable risk include: Hot water tanks and heaters, water storage tanks, evaporative condensers, dry/wet cooling systems, showers, decorative water features, spa pools, pumps and pipework.

The HSE’s Code of Practice Guidance*:

You or the person responsible for managing risks, need to understand your water systems, the equipment associated with the system such as pumps, heat exchangers, showers etc, and its constituent parts. Identify whether they are likely to create a risk from exposure to Legionella, and whether:

Assessing the Risk

The HSE clearly requires that “A suitable and sufficient assessment must be carried out to identify and assess the risk of exposure to Legionella bacteria from work activities and water systems on the premises and any precautionary measures needed.”

Ignoring the requirement for assessment is not an option, especially when it could be argued that the HSE and Local Authority inspectors don’t “proactively inspect domestic premises” or “ask for evidence that landlords have undertaken a risk assessment”. However, as outlined above, under HSWA the landlord may be liable to prosecution if a tenant contracts Legionella from a water system within the rented home, and would therefore have to demonstrate to a court that they had fulfilled their legal duty,.

It is therefore essential that landlords undertake appropriate measures to control the risk, particularly in older stock, with regular reviews and assessments carried out by a responsible party and all the necessary precautions taken to ensure the best duty of care to tenants.

While this sounds a costly exercise, landlords can assess the risk themselves without the need of employing a third party “if they are competent”. This is defined by the HSE as “someone who has the necessary skills, experience and knowledge to manage health and safety”. The question could then be asked, what constitutes ‘competent’; maybe not a new landlord, or someone with no prior experience of carrying out a health and safety audit, or specifically how to assess Legionella risk. While landlords understandably are looking to reduce additional expenditure, they need to clearly consider what is the best method to ensuring their tenants are safe, and seek advice and then take action accordingly.

*Source: Legionnaires’ Disease, Approved Code of Practice and guidance on regulations