» Accreditation: Delivering confidence in Legionella risk assessments

09 March, 2015

Deriving its name from the American Legion convention in Philadelphia where it was first discovered in 1976, Legionnaires’ Disease has rarely been out of the headlines since.  Although Legionella bacteria are common in natural water courses such as rivers and ponds, they rarely pose a significant danger to the population when in their natural environment.  However, within engineered water systems, Legionella can readily grow, with cooling towers, evaporative condensers and domestic water systems most commonly associated with outbreaks of the disease.

 With approximately 500 cases reported in the UK each year, around 35 of which are fatal, preventing incidents of Legionnaires’ Disease is a priority for anyone who is responsible for managing premises that utilise hot/cold water services and/or wet cooling systems.  Health and Safety legislation in the UK requires employers to consider the risks from Legionella and to take the appropriate precautions.

 The majority of organisations, both small and large, do not have the in-house resources to assess and tackle the threat of Legionella sufficiently, so will utilise the services of specialist risk assessment companies such as the RPS Group.  Amongst its 4,500 staff across the world, the RPS group employs highly qualified and experienced Legionella consultants in the UK and Netherlands.  Part of the service that its Built and Natural Environment Business offers include Legionella risk assessments, independent audits and microbiological sampling.  RPS provides these services across a wide range of industries, from commercial and housing association properties to hospitals, government and other public buildings.

 Whilst identifying companies to assist with assessing the risk of Legionella is relatively straightforward, how can procurers be sure that the services are fit for purpose and will help them to discharge their legal obligations?  The answer, increasingly, is accreditation.


Accredited Legionella Risk Assessment

Under EU legislation, every country has a single National Accreditation Body (NAB), whose role is to carry out the independent third-party assessment of organisations that offer testing, calibration, inspection and certification services.  The United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) has been the sole accreditation body recognised by government since its formation in 1995 and was made the official NAB for the UK in 2010.  By effectively checking the checkers, the process of accreditation determines in the public interest the technical competence and integrity of companies offering these assessment services.  But how does this apply specifically to Legionella risk assessment?

 Together with industry and other relevant stakeholders, UKAS has helped to develop a framework for accrediting Legionella risk assessments under both ISO/IEC 17020 (General criteria for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection) and British Standard BS 8580:2010 (Water Quality – Risk assessments for Legionella control – Code of Practice).  The British Standard has been produced in order to underpin The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) approved code of practice and guidance document L8 (Legionnaires’ Disease: The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems).

 The Health Protection Agency has stated that “UKAS accreditation assists clients in their selection of assessors and leads to greater consistency of Legionella risk assessments, with consequent improvements in protection of the public health.”  As one of the first companies to achieve accreditation under the new BS 8580 standard, RPS is ideally placed to assess the impact that accreditation has on customer confidence.  Mike Rose, Commercial Director at RPS said.  “Being accredited for Legionella risk assessment is not mandatory.  However, as with all health and safety services, there is a drive towards companies offering these services having to prove their competency.  UKAS accreditation helps us to demonstrate that our services are of the highest quality and technical standards, providing the necessary comfort to procurers that we are competent to deliver on our promises.”

 In addition to establishing the technical competence of staff and appropriateness of resources and facilities, UKAS accreditation also demonstrates that the services are impartial.  This is becoming increasingly important in Legionella risk assessment services, as Mike Rose explains.  “In the past procurers have had very little guidance over what constitutes a suitable and sufficient Legionella risk assessment.  Procurers may have had a suspicion that some companies providing the full package of assessment and remediation services have been offering assessment services at below cost price, safe in the knowledge that they will profit from any remedial works that their assessment identifies.  UKAS accreditation assures clients of our integrity and that the assessment report provided will be an unbiased appraisal of the Legionella risk in that particular building.”


Benefits of Accreditation

Beyond giving clients confidence in the quality and integrity of services they are procuring, using UKAS accredited services can provide clients with other more tangible benefits, as Mike Rose outlines.  “Nearly all outbreaks of Legionella can be attributed to a failing in management control of some kind.  It goes without saying that the main motivation for assessing Legionella risk is the health of employees and others.  However, there are also sound financial reasons for preventing outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease.  Firstly there are the financial costs of being successfully prosecuted such as legal fees and fines to consider.  But perhaps more importantly, the negative impact on an organisation’s reputation can be very damaging financially, especially to larger blue chip companies.”

 In addition to benefitting clients, becoming accredited can have a positive effect on those offering Legionella risk assessments, as Mike Rose explains.  “Initially clients were seeking assurance that our assessments complied with the HSE L8 guidance, whereas now they are asking if we are accredited to BS8580, as this is the first heavyweight standard for our industry.  This indicates that whilst it may not yet be a legal requirement, being accredited for Legionella risk assessment is fast becoming a  business requirement.  As one of the first companies to achieve accreditation to this standard, RPS is able to differentiate itself from its competitors, which will hopefully lead to an increase in business.”

 Achieving UKAS-accredited status is a rigorous and continuing process that does not end with the initial assessment visit.  The organisation applying will undergo a four year assessment cycle, consisting of two thorough visiting assessments and two further surveillance visits.  During each of the visits the organisation will have to demonstrate that it is technically competent, that its staff is suitably qualified, its working practices are fit for purpose, and the appropriate equipment is being used.  Internationally recognised standards are employed, meaning that once achieved accredited status can be utilised in 135 economies across the world.

 Undergoing accreditation assessment can also have a beneficial effect on the company’s day-to-day operations.  Mike Rose concludes, “Prior to being accredited we already operated in accordance with the ISO 9001 quality management system and our own documented in-house procedures.  It has been very helpful to have an external body come in and rigorously test how watertight those procedures are.  By asking searching questions, the accreditation process has helped us to take a step back, look at how we do things and streamline our processes to become more efficient.  We’re rightly proud of the time and effort invested by the whole team in becoming accredited for Legionella risk assessment, as it has been beneficial for the company, our clients and the industry as a whole.”