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Legionella risk assessments
Deriving its name from the American Legion convention in Philadelphia where it was first discovered in 1976, Legionnaires’ Disease has rarely been out of the headlines since. Each year in the UK there are around 500 cases reported, approximately 35 of which are fatal.
Preventing incidents of Legionnaires’ disease is a priority for anyone who is responsible for managing premises that utilise wet cooling systems, process water systems and domestic hot/cold services. For the healthcare sector, the naturally compromised immune systems of many patients in hospitals increases the risk posed by the Legionella bacteria.
Assessing the Risk
Health and Safety legislation in the UK requires all employers to consider the risks from Legionella and to take the appropriate precautions. Although Legionella bacteria are common in natural water courses such as rivers and ponds, they rarely pose a significant danger to the population when in their natural environment. However, within engineered water systems, Legionella can readily grow, with cooling towers, evaporative condensers and domestic water systems most commonly associated with outbreaks of the disease.
Nearly all outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease can be attributed to a failing in management control of some kind. The majority of organisations do not have the in-house resources to assess and tackle the threat of Legionella sufficiently, so will utilise the services of specialist risk assessment companies.
Identifying companies to assist with assessing the risk of Legionella is relatively straightforward. However, a key question is how can procurers in the healthcare sector be sure that the services on offer are fit for purpose and will help them to discharge their legal obligations? The answer, increasingly, is accreditation.
Under EU legislation, every country has a single National Accreditation Body (NAB), whose role is to carry out the independent third-party assessment of organisations that offer testing, calibration, inspection and certification services. The United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) has been the sole accreditation body recognised by government since its formation in 1995 and was made the official NAB for the UK in 2010. By effectively checking the checkers, the process of accreditation determines in the public interest the technical competence and integrity of companies offering these assessment services.
Achieving UKAS-accredited status is a rigorous and continuing process that does not end with the initial assessment visit. The organisation applying will undergo a four year assessment cycle, consisting of two thorough visiting assessments and two further surveillance visits. During each of the visits the organisation will have to demonstrate that it is technically competent, that its staff is suitably qualified, its working practices are fit for purpose, and the appropriate equipment is being used. Internationally recognised standards are employed, meaning that once achieved accredited status can be utilised in 135 economies across the world. But how does this apply specifically to Legionella risk assessment?
Accredited Legionella Risk Assessment
The Health Protection Agency has stated that “UKAS accreditation assists clients in their selection of assessors and leads to greater consistency of Legionella risk assessments, with consequent improvements in protection of the public health.”
UKAS, together with industry and other relevant stakeholders, has helped to develop a framework for accrediting Legionella risk assessments under both British Standard BS 8580:2010 (Water Quality – Risk assessments for Legionella control – Code of Practice) and ISO/IEC 17020 (General criteria for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection). The British Standard has been produced in order to underpin The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Approved Code of Practice and guidance document L8 (Legionnaires’ Disease: The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems). ISO/IEC 17020 is the internationally recognised standard that sets out the requirements for organisations performing inspection. In addition to being specifically aimed at inspection services, ISO/IEC 17020 includes an assessment of an organisation’s technical competence – a key differentiator over the commonly held ISO 9001 quality management standard.
Being accredited for Legionella risk assessment is not mandatory. However, as with all health and safety services, there is a drive towards companies offering these services having to prove their competence.
Conducting Legionella risk assessments with impartiality and integrity are key components of the new BS8580 standard. In addition to establishing the technical competence of staff and appropriateness of resources and facilities, UKAS accreditation also demonstrates that the services are impartial. This is becoming increasingly important to procurers of Legionella risk assessment services, as Mike Rose, commercial director of risk assessment company RPS explains: “In the past procurers have had very little guidance over what constitutes a suitable and sufficient Legionella risk assessment. They may have had a suspicion that some companies providing the full package of assessment and remediation services have been offering assessment services at below cost price, safe in the knowledge that they will profit from any remedial works that their assessment identifies. UKAS accreditation assures clients of a company’s integrity and that the assessment report provided will be an unbiased appraisal of the Legionella risk in that particular building.”
Benefits of Accreditation
Beyond giving organisations confidence in the quality and integrity of services they are procuring, using UKAS accredited services can provide them with other more tangible benefits, as Mike Rose outlines. “It goes without saying that the main motivation for assessing Legionella risk is the health of employees, patients and others. However, there are also sound financial reasons for preventing outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease. Firstly there are the financial costs of being successfully prosecuted such as legal fees and fines to consider.
But perhaps more importantly, the negative impact on an organisation’s reputation can be very damaging in the long run, especially within the healthcare sector.” Using an accredited provider can also help demonstrate due diligence in the event of a claim.
In addition to benefitting clients, becoming accredited can have a positive effect on those offering Legionella risk assessments, as Mike Rose explains. “Initially clients were seeking assurance that our assessments complied with the HSE L8 guidance, whereas now they are asking if we are accredited to BS8580, as this is the first heavyweight standard for our industry. This indicates that whilst it may not yet be a legal requirement, being accredited for Legionella risk assessment is fast becoming a business requirement.”