Following the recent spate of Legionnaires’ disease cases in South Australia, a public health alert has been issued and businesses are being warned to decontaminate their air-conditioning cooling towers.
Four South Australian men, aged 37 to 71, were admitted to hospital for treatment of Legionnaires’ disease, the source of which is yet to be determined. So far, investigators have been unable to find a similar exposure location where all men have been, but generally suggest that the fluctuating temperatures could be contributing to the growth of the bacteria.
Legionnaires’ disease is a serious lung disease, which typically presents with a range of symptoms, including fever, chills, muscle pain, severe headaches, a dry cough and shortness of breath.
The disease is caused by legionella bacteria – which is waterborne and can be widespread in our environment. It can be found in bodies of water, such as lakes and creeks, in potting mix, warm water systems and other artificial systems that use water for heating or cooling.
While the source of the exposure is unknown, it’s a timely reminder for businesses to ensure any at risk areas are well maintained and serviced.
This comes on the back of Brisbane hospital The Wesley experiencing an outbreak in early 2016, as well as the Mater Hospital in Brisbane also testing positive for legionella bacteria around the same time.
Interestingly, these outbreaks both occurred in the early, hot summer months of the year – lending credibility to the discussions around the impact of fluctuating hot weather on the harbouring of the bacteria.
While Legionnaires’ is treatable, it also can be fatal – with a mortality rate of up to 20%. It is especially problematic and potentially fatal for the elderly, smokers or those with already compromised immune or respiratory systems.
How does this affect businesses and building owners?
This will affect businesses in different ways – depending on the nature of their relationship to the property, i.e. their ownership and control of the premises and any contaminated areas (or areas which could become contaminated), and whether they have employees working in these areas. All employers owe a non-delegable duty to provide a safe place of work for all of their employees.
For example, when we look at hospital based exposures, this (depending on the type of hospital, public or private) will likely be premises under governmental control – with onsite management. This means that it is most likely the responsibility of on-site management, but ultimately the Department of Health (in the case of a public hospital), to adequately service and maintain ‘danger’ areas, such as air-conditioning cooling towers and other water systems. In relation to Private Hospitals, the responsibility will be with the owner of the premises or passed via responsibility clauses in any Lease of the premises.
Where a business is the owner and occupier of the premises with employees working on site, it will be that employer’s responsibility to assess for risk, monitor, treat and maintain these danger areas. This only differs where your premises are under a rental or lease agreement, and the building is owned by another entity – where the maintenance and servicing may be a component of their responsibilities under the lease agreement as landlord.
As detailed above, the responsibility relating to the premises will differ depending on a number of factors. This then comes into play if exposure occurs and this is linked to a lack of assessment of risk, repair, monitoring and treatment, maintenance or broken/faulty equipment. This is where your employer, or the owner of your workplace premises will likely be considered at fault for the exposure and any subsequent contraction of Legionnaires’ disease.
This is why, especially given the warnings, recent exposures in SA and the current climate considerations, that the assessment of risk, repair, monitoring and treatment, and maintenance in any at risk areas be up to date and any faulty or broken equipment be quickly remedied.
What are your legal rights, should you contract Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ can be quite severe, and in some cases have long-term effects. The possible long-term effects of Legionnaires’ can include; confusion, short and long term memory loss, fatigue and asthma.
It’s also common for those effected to suffer fatigue, energy loss and difficulty concentrating in the months following recovery. The impacts on memory can be quiet severe in some cases and can extend to a complete lack of recognition of loved ones.
As you can imagine, these long-term effects can seriously impact the lives of sufferers – especially when it comes to working ability and earning capacity, which can place serious financial stress on an individual and their family.
Therefore it’s understandable that effected individuals often look to compensation to help ease the financial burdens. This is also often the case in more serious instances where the effected individual perishes due to the disease and any dependants are left distraught and often in a difficult financial position.