Water Safety Advice for Residential Property Management

There appears to be a hierarchy of priority when it comes to health & safety within the block management sector. Everybody knows the importance of fire safety, there is a high awareness of the dangers of asbestos, and the no win / no fee personal injury culture ensures trips and falls and other hazards are identified and dealt with. In this context water safety has often been overlooked and even ignored by many RMC directors and property managers. That is until recently when perceived changes in law have raised concerns about the liabilities and responsibilities of freeholders and landlords.

So what has changed? Well basically nothing – except a growing realisation that water safety is as important as fire, asbestos and general health & safety and should be treated as such.

Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia. It is caused by the inhalation of small droplets of water in the form of vapour or spray that have been contaminated by legionella bacteria (to be more precise, this is usually a particular species known as Legionella pneumophilia) Although it can result in death this bacteria is often the cause of less serious flu like illnesses.

Like most things in life, at low levels legionella bacteria are not harmful to most people and many of us have been exposed to low levels without noticing any ill-effects. However, in favourable conditions the bacteria can grow to levels that are at best harmful and at worst lethal.

The “responsible person” within the property management team (i.e. the freeholder, landlord or managing agent) has a legal duty to ensure this does not happen. These duties are enforced within:

  • Section 3 (2) of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA)
  • Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR)
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
  • L8 – Approved Code of Practice (ACOP)

As previously stated those responsibilities have not changed. Landlords and those responsible for water systems in both domestic and business premises are required to assess and control the risks of exposure to legionella.

There is a common misconception that it is only legionella testing / sampling that is required and that a “Legionella Test Certificate” is sufficient. It should be noted that Health & Safety law does not require landlords / responsible persons to have such a certificate, and indeed the HSE does not recognise it. The requirement is for those parts of the water system under the control of the responsible person to be properly surveyed and assessed for risk and followed up with a suitable regime of maintenance, testing and inspection to control any risks identified. This usually includes water temperature monitoring and the routine inspection of storage tanks. Legionella sampling can, and often will, form part of the risk assessment but will not in itself be sufficient.

Whether you are a landlord, RMC director or property manager the cost of water safety management will be an issue. Whilst understanding that allocation of service charges have to be managed and prioritised it should be realised that failure to take the necessary steps to identify and control water safety risks could result in a far greater cost than the initial precautionary risk assessment. The legionella risk assessment is in fact a legal requirement and furthermore the cost of such an assessment does not have to be high. In many small properties and those that are purpose built residential apartment blocks the risk may be very low. For example, where there are no water storage tanks , boilers or calorifiers within the communal areas and cold water supplies are delivered directly into residents private living areas. Where this is the case a simple straightforward assessment can be undertaken which covers the following steps:

  1. Check cold and hot water temperatures. Cold water should be maintained below 20 degrees centigrade and hot water stored at 60 degrees centigrade and distributed at 50 degrees centigrade.
  2. Check there are no areas where stagnant water occurs (commonly known as dead legs). This could be pipes to appliances such as washing machines that are no longer in use, or pipes to garden taps used for car cleaning or irrigation, etc.
  3. Check whether there are any rooms or properties that have been vacant long enough for water to stagnate in pipes and if so whether the system has been periodically flushed.
  4. Check whether there is any build-up of debris in the system such limescale, sediment, rust or sludge.
  5. Check whether part or all of the system require modernising.
  6. Check whether all tanks / cisterns are covered with secure lids to prevent contamination by mice, birds, insects or dirt.
  7. Check whether the water system is susceptible to backflow from fittings or hoses attached to external taps.
  8. Check whether there is any cross connection between pipes carrying water for tenants direct use or from other sources. Also check whether there are any areas where hot and cold water pipes are in close proximity.
  9. Check whether there are any tenants vulnerable to infection due to old age or illness.

PLEASE NOTE – The above is not a conclusive checklist and should not be taken as such. More comprehensive guidance can be obtained from the HSE website.

If the above steps identify any possible risk then suitable remedial actions should be implemented and any relevant persons should be informed of the risks and of any actions they are required to take. Finally a record should always be kept of when the risk assessment was carried out, by whom, its findings and any recommended actions.

Although the above may be suitable for low risk properties many landlords, RMC directors and / or property managers may not feel comfortable or competent to take on the responsibility of putting their names to the risk assessment. There will also be many properties that have more complex water systems that require a qualified professional to survey and inspect the system.

The following questions which can be found on the HSE website may assist your decision regarding which approach to take for controlling legionella in your managed properties:

  1. Is there a risk assessment in place for the water system?
  2. Does the risk assessment contain a description of the water system (e.g. an up to date schematic diagram) showing what the system comprises including parts out of use?
  3. Does the risk assessment conclude there is no significant risk?
  4. If the risk assessment does identify a significant risk then:
    1. Is there a written control scheme in place to address the risk?
    2. Has the responsible person(s) been identified in writing?
    3. Are the roles and responsibilities of all staff involved in the control regime clearly defined in writing and have they all received appropriate training?
    4. If external contractors are used are their roles and responsibilities clearly defined in writing and have you checked on the competence of contractors / consultants and found it acceptable (e.g. experience and qualification, training, membership of professional bodies or recognised trade associations)?
    5. Have you considered all other health & safety issues (e.g. COSHH assessments for handling water treatment chemicals, working at height, working in confined spaces, electrical safety and ease of access to parts of the system?

There is no legal requirement to review legionella risk assessments at specific intervals. However the risk assessment should include a management plan that would recommend appropriate review dates.

It is not common practice for the HSE or local authorities to pro actively inspect domestic / residential properties. However in the event of a legionella occurrence the landlord / responsible person may be liable to prosecution under HASW and would be required to demonstrate in court their legal duties had been fulfilled.

Hopefully this clarifies the importance of ensuring satisfactory water safety measures are in place.

If you need further advice or assistance in drafting or reviewing the water safety management programme for the properties you are responsible for please contact David Foster at Quantum Compliance on 07720 348161 or by e-mail at david.foster@qcompliance.co.uk