What is Legionnaires' Disease and what responsibilities do I have as an employer?

By: James Greenwood on Sep 6, 2019

Employers and those in charge of commercial premises have a responsibility to ensure that the building is safe from Legionella bacteria, which can lead to the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease. But what is Legionnaires’ disease and how can you ensure your building is safe from it?

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionnaires' disease is a serious form of pneumonia that infects the lungs.

It is a severe and potentially fatal disease that is especially dangerous to people who:

  • Suffer from chronic respiratory or kidney disease
  • Suffer from diabetes, lung and heart disease
  • Have an impaired immune system
  • Are over 45 years of age
  • Are smokers or heavy drinkers

It is rare for babies or children to catch the disease.

What causes Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionnaires’ disease is caused by a bacterium called Legionella pneumophila which lives in natural water sources such as lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams. It can also be found in man-made water systems such as hot and cold water systems, cooling towers and spas. 

Where and how can you catch it?

Man-made environments can contain the perfect conditions for Legionella bacterium to multiply and produce the water droplets that carry the bacterium.

These generally tend to be found in industrial or commercial premises – it is rare that Legionnaires' disease is caught in the home.

You can catch Legionnaires' disease by inhaling water droplets containing the Legionella bacterium. These water droplets can then make their way into the lungs via aspiration.

Is it infectious?

No. People who are infected cannot transmit the disease. There are no special precautions that need to be taken around someone with the disease.

Can it be treated?

If Legionnaires’ disease is caught in the early stages and treated, a healthy patient should make a full recovery. Patients with existing health issues that affect the respiratory system or compromise the immune system may suffer prolonged hospitalisation, complications or even, in the worst cases, death. Treatment is usually in the form of antibiotics.

What are the symptoms?

As the disease is a form of pneumonia, it can feel like severe flu. Symptoms may include a high fever, chills, cough, muscle aches, headaches, and diarrhoea. Symptoms will appear between two to ten days after contracting the disease. 

What are the long-term effects?

If treatment proves effective, then patients may suffer no long-term effects. But if it is ineffective then they may suffer a range of on-going issues such as fatigue, neurological damage or neuromuscular damage.

I am an employer, how can I protect staff and visitors against Legionnaires’ disease? 

If you are an employer, or someone in control of premises (e.g. landlord), you have a legal duty to understand and manage legionella risks.

You must understand how to:

For further information visit the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website.

What legal responsibilities do I have?

In the United Kingdom, there is a legal requirement for any company with five or more employees to follow the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and carry out a Legionella risk assessment to assess the risk of Legionnaires’ disease on their site and then to record of any significant findings – retaining the results of any inspections, checks or tests for a minimum of five years.

The aim of a legionella risk assessment is to help you identify real risks and to provide you with the steps to take in order to remedy any problems.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Approved Code of Practice ACOP L8 has been developed to help business owners and landlords conform to the legislation and carry out its requirements.

There is also a legal requirement for employers to report cases of Legionnaires' disease that may have been acquired at their premises to the Health and Safety Executive.

Is there any Legionella training I should be doing?

Legionella training is an essential and mandatory component of any Legionella control management programme. As a duty holder or responsible person, you are not legally required to complete training to perform your duties. However, training forms a big part of a person's ability to work competently and safety.

There are a number of accredited Legionella training programmes. City & Guilds and Highfield Awarding Body for Compliance are the two most well-known accreditation bodies with the most relevant and up to date course content. On completing training, individuals receive a recognised certification. The one-day courses are run by approved training centres and trainers, including WCS Group.

What else can I do to protect my staff?

There are also a number of basic safety measures you can implement to protect against the buildup of Legionella bacteria in your building. These include: 

  • Making sure your boiler or hot water tank is working properly and keep it well maintained.
  • Keeping the temperature settings on your boiler or hot water system set to heat up to 60 degrees celsius. However, this temperature could scald and cause injury, so only do this where you have mixer taps with a thermostatic mixing valve. Do not do this where elderly people and children may be present. 
  • Turning on showers and taps for two minutes - preferably at a high temperature, if they have not been used for more than a week, and flush toilets with the lid down.
  • Keeping all showerheads and taps clean and free from a build-up of limescale, mould or algae growth. 
  • Draining any hosepipes after use and keeping them out of direct sunlight

Legionella awareness training courses for ACoP L8 compliance

Topics: Legionella Control, Legionella

James Greenwood

Written by James Greenwood

James Greenwood as been working in the Water Treatment and Water Hygiene Industry for over 20 years. He is currently the Sales and Marketing Director for WCS Group the largest water hygiene and treatment Company in the UK. James has been instrumental in bringing significant innovations to the UK market over the years always focusing on enhancing client’s compliance and delivering true return on investment projects offering monetary and environmental savings.