The closing of several areas of the Parliamentary Estate after the discovery of legionella bacteria in June was a clear reminder that legionella outbreaks remain a threat to any building or facility. In this article, Katy Rogers, Business Director for Water Controls Specialists Rada, describes some of the key challenges we face with legionella outbreaks, and how they can be mitigated by innovative technology and best practice infection control management.
Whether scandal, intrigue or high drama in the corridors of power, we have grown used to the near endless stories of political intrigue emerging from Westminster. These are so commonplace that it becomes almost natural to switch off. But one news report in mid-June was likely to grab the attention of any UK facilities management professional when it emerged that certain areas of the Parliamentary Estate had been shut down as a 'precautionary measure' following the discovery of 'low levels' of legionella bacteria by maintenance staff.
The identification of the bacteria led to 'isolated areas’ of the Portcullis House site to be shut down as water system disinfection was carried out. Westminster village is one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious pieces of real estate, with dedicated facilities teams working there to help facilitate the running of our democracy. However, the discovery of legionella was a stark reminder of just how present a threat legionella bacterium is, and the importance of ensuring our profession does everything it can to mitigate the risk of it.
Water stagnation in buildings can lead to bacterial growth and an increased risk of pathogenic Gram-negative bacteria, including the species L. pneumophilia, which can in turn lead to legionellosis - the range of illnesses caused by legionella. The disease itself is named after an unknown disease which broke out amongst attendees at an American Legion convention, causing 34 deaths. Whist death and illness from legionella in the UK is mercifully low, the risk of legionella has rightly been at the forefront of many facilities and estate managers' minds as buildings have re-opened and staff return to work following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whilst we don’t know the cause of the outbreak in Westminster, high staff attrition rates in the facilities management sector have led many facilities managers to call for greater support in ensuring the risk of legionella remains low. The water delivery industry - in which I have worked for many years - has a considerable role to play in meeting this challenge. Our duty of care extends first and foremost to the end-users of products, in terms of reducing the risk of water-borne viruses, but also to our colleagues in facilities and estates through the development of innovative technology which can ease the pressures they face.
Duty flushing is the first line of defence against legionella's outbreaks. A schedule of duty flushing is mandatory in any non-domestic setting - sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. This is supported by strict data logging and tracking of every maintenance activity. Traditional approaches to water management require a member of the facilities team to manually duty flush and record the process for all water systems in a building. This is a time consuming and costly venture and one which the latest innovations in water delivery mean is no longer necessary. New technologies exist which allow facilities managers to monitor the performance of every water outlet within a building, identifying abnormalities with remedial action taken rapidly. Such innovations allow data and logs of duty-flushing, to ensure that facility managers remain fully compliant with Health and Safety Executive guidance, reducing the risk of future outbreaks.
In nearly every other facet of our lives, we have allowed technology to do much of the heavy lifting, and the management of facilities should be no different. The digitisation of water management systems, including the taps and showers utilised by the end user can now be digitally connected, and networkable, supporting sites to keep their users safe. Furthermore, by digitising water run times and temperatures we can ensure that water is delivered safely, efficiently, and at lower cost. Whether in Westminster, a hospital or leisure facility, by investing in the latest technology, we can reduce the risk of the buildings being shut down and keep visitors safe.