Recent events in New York City have once again brought Legionnaires Disease onto the radar for many facilities throughout the Northeast. The latest Legionellosis outbreak reported in NYC has been allegedly linked back to an infected cooling tower in the Bronx. It has been reported that the facility in question is now under the watchful eye of the New York City Health Department. Legionella in a cooling tower is a serious issue because of how a cooling tower operates; not only does the bacteria thrive in an under-treated environment, but the the tower mechanism itself acts as the perfect way to dispurse the bacteria in water droplets into the atmosphere. As you can imagine, attorneys have already threatened to bring suit, and facility managers across the New Your City are re-thinking their protocols for dealing with legionella. Many building owners are trying to figure out if they have the best water treatment company in New York working for them. There is a very good chance that there were steps that could have been followed that would have prevented this unfortunate event; and if the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) get their way, there soon will be.
At this point it has been well documented that ASHRAE Standard 188 stands to fundamentally change the way that facilities handle the treatment, management and maintenance of their plumbing systems, cooling towers, whirlpool spas, swimming pools, decorative fountains, air washers, misters, and humidifiers. Standard 188 was originally developed to address hazards associated with specific water borne pathogens emanating from these systems; however the standard has now become synonymous with controlling and eliminating Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease, a potentially lethal form of pneumonia. In previous draft versions, the major requirement of Standard 188 was the adoption of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach to managing these water related assets, however, now that Standard 188 is in its fourth public review, most the HACCP terminology has been removed while some of the principles of the approach remain. The Standard's title has now also been changed to be in closer alignment with the Standard's overall purpose: Standard 188 - Legionellosis: Risk Management for Building Water Systems.
In a nutshell, once approved, the latest version of ASHRAE Standard 188 will put even more emphasis on the requirements for design, construction, installation, commissioning, operation, maintenance and service of all systems that could potentially breed the legionella bacteria.
What's the big deal?
This will be the first standard, rather than a guideline, that directly addresses legionella in water systems. For instance, OSHA has a long standing guideline that says that it is recommended for building owners to clean and disinfect their cooling towers twice per year. OSHA would like building owners to adopt this guideline into their regular maintenance best practices, but it is by no means enforceable by OSHA or any third party.
Standard 188 also stands to become adopted as American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard. A standard carries more weight than a guideline, and in some states, Standard 188 may also be adopted into law. Standards carry more weight than guidelines and laws obviously carry more weight than standards.
It is relevant to note that in many Western European countries including England and Ireland, there are already strict laws in place that hold building owners and facility manager directly and personally responsible for any instances of legionella or other water borne pathogen outbreaks that can be linked back to their facilities. That means that, in those countries, a building owner can be brought up on criminal charges if he or she is found to be grossly negligent in the maintenance of their water systems in the event that someone gets sick or dies.
So what will the shift from guideline to standard mean for facility managers?
To comply with Standard 188, facility managers and building owners will be responsible for controlling and eliminating Legionella in their building’s potable and utility water systems. In hospitals and nursing facilities the stakes stand to be much higher. Implementation of Standard 188 in these facilities will result in a higher standard of care, raising the bar for the minimum acceptable criteria for preventing Legionella in these types of facilities, and that fact could put healthcare providers at a much higher risk for lawsuits if they do not comply. As bearers of increased responsibility and risk, building owners will have to turn to environmental, design and construction, maintenance and water treatment industry experts to help them mitigate the risks associated with Legionella.
Why could facilities be forced to comply with Standard 188 once it is ratified?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers comply with occupational safety and health standards and that employees comply with standards, rules, regulations, and orders issued which are applicable to their own actions and conduct. Furthermore, part one of 29 U.S. Code § 654 - Duties of Employers and Employees states that "each employer will furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
When and if Standard 188 is approved, an even stronger case could be made for Legionellosis qualifying as a recognized hazard. All organizations could then be expected to act in accordance with the standard, and if a crisis arises, they could be found guilty of negligence under the law if measures were not taken to uphold the Standard.
What can you do today?
Although Standard 188 has not been completely approved yet, it looks as though it is in the final stages of getting that approval. That means that it is possibly no longer a matter of if it will be approved; but instead only a matter of when. In the case of mitigating risk, a good offense is probably your best defense.
Consider getting a Legionella Risk Assessment and Action Plan. Many of the top water treatment companies throughout the United States offer this type of service, but if it seems that your water treatment company does not, considering finding one that does. A properly prepared Legionella Risk Assessment and Action Plan identifies areas throughout your facility that have the potential to harbor, grow and disperse legionella bacteria. It also describes the protocols that should be used to keep the bacteria at bay and he procedures that can be used to eradicate it in the event that the prevention techniques fail. The action plan is designed to help quickly assess a problem with Legionella and deal with it if a problem should arise; this includes what to do if a facility merely discovers the bacteria in a water system to what actions need to be taken in the event of a fully blown outbreak.
As a point of reference, the following systems could all be potential sources of legionella bacteria:
- Cooling Tower
- Evaporative Condenser
- Hot and Cold Water Systems
- Hot Tubs and Heated Swimming Pools
- Natural Thermal Springs and their distribution systems
- Respiratory and other medical therapy equipment
- Drinking Fountains/Decorative Fountains/Sprinklers
- Water Cooled Machine Tools
- Car Washes
- Any untreated body of water that may exceed 70°F that could be splashed, sprayed or aerosolized.
- Any system that contains water that may exceed 70°F and could emit a spray or aerosol during their operation or maintenance.
A quick tip for building owners with a Cooling Tower on thier property: Even if the water in your cooling tower looks clean, you could still have biofilm in your cooling tower. Bioslime can harbor all kinds of microbiological growth including legionella bacteria. A trained technician can usually feel biofilm easier than they can see it by running their hand across the inside wall of the tower basin.
Need more information or guidance?
Clarity Water Technologies is committed to being the best water treatment company on the East Coast. We offer many highly specialized water treatment services including Legionella Risk Assessment and Action Plans. We are also the company to call if you suspect that you may have a Legionella issue at your facility. Issues regarding Legionella and water treatment are not one size fits all. At Clarity, we operate quickly and methodically to assess any potential microbial hot spots, and if warranted, we have multiple methods of remediation at our disposal to get your facility safe and back online fast. If you would like more information about our water treatment services or how to get a free preliminary risk assessment, please check out the link below.
Thanks for reading!
Greg Frazier is an expert in Industrial Water Treatment and is currently the Managing Partner of Clarity Water Technologies, a top Water Treatment and HVAC Cleaning Company in New York. Mr. Frazier has over 18 years of Industrial Water Treatment experience and holds a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Tennessee.
Next Step: We are conducting free on-site surveys throughout the Northeast! This type of in-depth system review could help save you thousands of dollars in operating costs as well as help minimize your exposure to legionella related issues. If you would like to learn how you can receive a free comprehensive HVAC System Survey and Analysis of your facility's HVAC System, please use the link below.