Has the coronavirus increased the Legionella risk at my office?

Has the coronavirus increased the Legionella risk at my office?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries in the world went through tough lockdowns. This, of course, included corporate offices and workspaces, and because of this office workers were facing unexpected health threats upon return. Stagnant plumbing and water systems in emptied corporate buildings and buildings put returning workers at risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other illnesses.

Office buildings and corporate workplaces once filled with workers emptied out in several cities and countries. These corporate structures, usually in constant use, have been temporarily closed off and shut down, and hence health risks may be accumulating in unexpected and unseen ways.

These workspaces are not designed to be left alone for weeks or even months. The main worry is Legionella pneumophila, that causes Legionnaires’ disease. This illness is a respiratory condition. It can eventually lead to death in about ten per cent of the cases. A single small outbreak can actually sicken several people.

The worst thing is that Legionella tends to affect individuals with compromised immune systems. Patients of coronavirus and survivors could be even more vulnerable to this, so when these individuals go back to their workspace we might be concerned about another infection.

Implementing measures to manage and control risk in workspaces

If an office has a water or plumbing system that is at risk of Legionella growth, we can actually control it by undertaking some simple steps.

Occupational risks from Legionella are covered by a EU Directive on the protection of employees and workers from risks of exposure to biological agents at their workspace. This directive obliges business owners, employers and institution directors to evaluate the risks of biological agents and take the necessary measures.

In developing an L8 risk assessment and applying Legionella risk controls it is very important to consider additional hazards and risks associated with maintenance and monitoring procedures.

Better understanding Legionella

Legionella bacteria is the cause of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease, which is a severe form of pneumonia, as well as other fevers that are less serious, such as Pontiac fever. Legionnaires’ disease can affect any person who comes into contact with Legionella bacteria. Legionella can be found in natural water sources, but when confined to human water systems, it can easily multiply, unless the necessary measures are taken to control and manage the risks by storing our water at the right temperature. Legionella bacteria is typically contracted by inhaling small droplets of water that are suspended in the air. It can grow in temperatures ranging between twenty to forty-five degrees Celsius, which means cold water needs to be stored at lower temperatures than twenty degrees Celsius and hot water at higher temperatures than forty-five degrees Celsius. Legionella bacteria can grow in deposits such as rust, scale, sludge and other organic matter, so it is very important to keep your water system clean at all times.

Once it has grown into your building’s plumbing, Legionella bacteria can be dispersed through the air whenever your toilet is flushed. Even when turning on tap water, as workers wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, can potentially send water droplets into the air that carry Legionella.

Controlling Legionella in our plumbing and water systems

If you are unsure if your water system is at risk of Legionella growth, then advice from an expert water engineer or treatment provider needs to be sought and control measures implemented. The control measures may include raising the temperature of the water or even adding biocides. Also, regular flushing of cold and hot water systems and thorough cleaning of spa pools can help prevent the formation of biofilm that is required for Legionella growth.

Usually, a facility manager can reduce the risk of a Legionella outbreak by pouring small amounts of disinfectant into the water system. However, when the water is left stagnant for a while, like the time when half the world was under lockdown, the disinfectant can disappear. Even through shorter time spans like a weekend, disinfectant can be gone in some buildings’ water systems and the water will become more vulnerable to contamination.

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