Leaked HSE report by inspectors before 2012 Olympics highlights danger of poor management of cooling towers
London could experience an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease with potentially “catastrophic consequences” for people’s health because of poor management of cooling towers and evaporative condensers near busy transport hubs and Olympic venues, according to a leaked Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report.
The stark warning is contained in a report by the HSE detailing the results of inspections for the presence of the legionella bacteria, which causes the disease, at 62 sites around the capital, carried out by its inspectors as part of the safety preparations for this summer’s Olympic Games.
Inspectors visited sites “within two kilometres of London-based Olympic venues and certain major travel hubs, namely Heathrow airport, London City airport, London Bridge station and St Pancras train station”, as well as all sites under the HSE’s remit in the central London borough of Westminster, according to the report entitled Olympic Legionella Project, dated “spring/summer 2012″.
It reveals that compliance with health and safety requirements was inadequate at almost three-quarters of the sites. “The headline to arise from this project is the poor level of compliance. In percentage terms 73% of sites were in receipt of enforcement notices or written/verbal advice,” it says.
Noting that “there appears to be no logical reason why compliance is poor”, it then refers to the previous outbreaks of legionella and the relevance of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act for management of risk. It then states: “The potential of any outbreak in terms of numbers of people infected and potential for prosecution on both an individual or corporate basis is well known.”
Then, noting the problems inspectors uncovered and potentially poor management of cooling towers and evaporative condensers by facilities management companies, it adds: “Taken together with the increased turnover of FM companies leading to management responsibilities changing, it could be speculated that scenarios are occuring where an outbreak could happen [in London]. This will have catastrophic consequences compared to Edinburgh given it is the area with the most footfall within the country.”
Three people died and almost 100 others fell ill, with several ending up in intensive care in hospital, in the Scottish capital in June this year in an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease linked to cooling towers in the south-west of the city.
The HSE’s report, obtained by Environmental Health News (EHN) magazine, appears to be warning that London could experience a much greater loss of life than Edinburgh because of the large number of people who use the transport hubs inspected in the capital.
An outbreak of legionnaires’ disease in Stoke-on-Trent in July, which was linked to a hot tub display, led to 21 people becoming infected and two deaths. The disease is an uncommon but severe form of pneumonia. Smokers and anyone with a weakened immune system is at higher risk.
Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, told EHN that the still unpublished HSE report showed that urgent action was needed to minimise the risk to Londoners.
“A great pity that the HSE Olympic Project Report has not yet been published. It is a powerful wake-up call for action to rectify the long list of deficiencies found regarding the management of the legionella risk from cooling towers, particularly in the public sector. But for the grace of God there hasn’t been an outbreak in London – yet. Urgent action is needed. Legionella kills – but it is preventable,” Pennington said.
The HSE initially identified 106 sites for inspection. Of those, 62 were HSE-enforced sites which had active wet cooling towers and evaporative condensers, 31 were decommisisoned or not in use, four were embassies “where enforcement was a grey area” and the other nine were due to be inspected by local council officials.
Of the 62 sites its staff visited, 11 were issued with improvement notices over issues such as access problems, insufficient risk assessment and poor monitoring or management. It issued written advice in relation to another 30 sites and verbal advice to eight others. But only one site was being considered for prosecution, the report says.
Compliance was “poorer” among the 43 sites it visited that were owned by the public sector than among the 19 private sector sites, the report notes.
The HSE told EHN that the warning of a catastrophic outbreak was unfounded. “This was a comment made by the inspector who drafted the report, based on speculation and personal opinion. It is not one that is backed up by research or evidence,” a spokesperson said.
Formal enforcement action in the form of notices was needed at fewer than 10% of the sites visited, the HSE added.
“Most of this enforcement related to the provision of safe means of access for staff and contractors involved in the monitoring and maintenance of the cooling towers and evaporative condensers, rather than being related directly to legionella management. Verbal and written advice is generally given where it has been identified that improvements can be made and standards raised, but where people are not being put at serious risk,” said the spokesperson.
A “final version” of the report would be published, the HSE said.