In our experience, the level of knowledge among landlords of their legal responsibilities regarding Legionella control is worryingly low. We’re not about to indulge in scaremongering but Legionella can be a seriously dangerous bacteria when it infiltrates hot and cold water systems: the mortality rate among victims of Legionnaires’ disease can be as much as 30%, on a par with strokes and many cancers.
The lack of awareness among people renting out their property can partly be blamed on poor communication from the authorities. The Health & Safety Executive’s L8 Approved Code of Practice on Legionella control isn’t widely publicised yet there has been huge growth in the buy-to-let property market in recent years. Add to that the vast amount of properties being used for holiday rentals and short-term lets through services such as Airbnb, there are now millions of rented rooms, flats and houses which fall under the legislation but are being managed by landlords who are largely ignorant of the law on Legionella. As a result, we are approaching a perfect storm of non-compliance.
The fact that Legionella is invisible to the naked eye and usually lurks in unseen places (like inside rusty pipework or in the sediment of your water tank) adds to the problem. If a house has dodgy electrics there would most likely be some physical signs of the dangers, such as loose wiring, broken sockets or frequent power outages. In the case of Legionella, you and your tenants won’t know it’s there and there’ll be little obvious evidence of the risk. What’s more, if they become infected and develop Legionnaires’ disease, they may not even recognise the symptoms. Similar to a flu-type virus or pneumonia, it’s believed that Legionnaires’ disease is often misdiagnosed, particularly in the early stages. Early detection (done by a simple urine test) and treatment with antibiotics have a major influence on survival rates; all too often patients aren’t caught early enough to cure them. Furthermore, even those who survive Legionnaires’ disease are often left with long-term health problems as a result of their illness.
The consequences of non-compliance are serious, and not just for victims of Legionnaires’ disease. Landlords, employers and duty holders face significant penalties if it can be proved they didn’t control the risk of Legionella. Just this week security firm G4S was fined almost £2m after failing to protect its workers from the bacteria. Earlier in the summer Reading Borough Council was similarly ordered to pay a £100,000 penalty after a care home resident died from the disease. In both instances there were serious flaws in the management of the risk and numerous health and safety failings in the operation of the water systems. Inadequate staff training, poorly-maintained equipment and non-existent risk assessments were also uncovered.
In some other cases, charges of corporate or involuntary manslaughter have even been brought against duty holders who have failed to protect against the risk of Legionella, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Aside from the legal consequences, there is also untold reputational damage to contend with. The very first case of Legionnaires’ disease 40 years ago at a hotel in Philadelphia tarnished its name irreparably and within a few months it closed down. There is also the cost involved in fighting any legal charges, the inevitable extended void period of your property while the case is investigated, plus the likely long-term stigma left by the case. All in all, dereliction of duty when it comes to managing the risk of Legionella is hugely costly.