Prosecution of landlord highlights dangers of Legionnaires' disease


22 October, 2010

It has recently been reported in the publication Inside Housing that a housing association has been fined £12,000 following an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at a sheltered housing scheme. This led to one resident being hospitalised with the illness. The housing association pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Basildon Magistrates' Court heard that Legionella experts had been contracted to carry out an investigation at the scheme in 2006. A number of problems were said to have been found with the scheme's water system which should have been addressed immediately. However, the risk assessment was not received by the association's staff until the middle of 2007. It was conceded by the association that it was their duty to ensure that they received this document and to check whether any urgent action needed to be taken by them.

This incident draws attention to the need for all social landlords to be aware of the dangers posed by Legionnaires' disease and the steps that can be taken to prevent harm being caused to tenants.

What is Legionnaires' disease?

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia which can be fatal. Those most susceptible to the disease are the elderly and individuals with respiratory problems. It is caused by the Legionella bacteria which can be found in water systems such as those used in houses.

The disease is transferred to individuals through water droplets from the infected systems being inhaled by the individual. This risk is increased if there is a suitable temperature for the bacteria to grow (between 20-45 degrees Celsius), a source of nutrients (such as rust, scale or other organic matter) and a way in which droplets of water can be spread (e.g. through a tap).

Compliance with the law

Although it is considered that the generally high usage and low volume of water held in residential water systems will reduce the likelihood of Legionella bacteria reaching dangerous levels, it is still necessary for landlords to carry out a risk assessment to determine whether there are any potential sources of exposure for occupants. Such assessments can be carried out by specialist companies.

Any action taken by a landlord to avoid the bacteria spreading is likely to include:

  • Ensuring that water cannot stagnate in the system (i.e. by removing disused pipe work and by running taps in unoccupied rooms);
  • Keeping cisterns clean and insulated;
  • Insulating pipe work;
  • Advising maintenance staff about the risks and how they can be avoided; and
  • Advising tenants about the risks and the steps that they can take to reduce the risk of exposure to the bacteria, especially after periods of non-use.


The dangers posed by Legionnaires' disease are real and potentially life threatening. It is vitally important that landlords know about the conditions ideal for bacteria growth and how these circumstances can be prevented. Landlords should also ensure that thorough risk assessments are carried out on a regular basis into the likelihood of exposure to the disease.

For more information and assistance on these issues, please contact the Housing Litigation Department at Forbes Solicitors on 01772 220200 or email Stuart Penswick.


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