As Covid-19 guidance changes once again, water hygiene expert Craig Morning explains how to ensure high water quality in under-occupied workplaces.
Following the UK government’s announcement last week that those who can work from home should, now would be a good time to consider how our offices and workplaces will be used in the future. Many businesses have found that allowing staff able to work from home has been effective, and recent studies have shown that many employees do not want to return to working full-time in their old workplaces. It appears that businesses are willing to discuss this hybrid/blended working where employees will spend a portion of their time working from home and the rest working from their existing sites.
But have these businesses considered the effect this will have on water hygiene? In this article we will highlight some areas of concern and offer some insight into ways to mitigate any additional risks identified.
Hygiene risk assessments
First, we must remember that in the majority of buildings in the UK we take some basic precautions to help control the growth of waterborne pathogens, including legionella.
Namely, we ensure:
- water systems are designed to meet the needs of the building users
- systems are constructed using only approved materials
- hot water is kept hot
- cold water is kept cold
- assets are used regularly
- everything is kept clean
- plant and equipment are well maintained.
If we think about how hybrid/blended working will affect these precautions, we can see that the very first area we need to reconsider is the fundamental design of on-site water systems. Where a water system has been designed to supply toilets and washing facilities to 500 people in an office block and we now only have 150 using the system each day, a problem is likely to develop.
Where cold water storage tanks have been installed, these should hold a maximum of 24* hours use of water based on normal use, but now many of the outlets will not be used by as many people and less water will be used.
What evidence do you have to show that you have given consideration to the amount of cold water you store on-site? If you have made changes to the water systems, have you commissioned a new water hygiene risk assessment as would be required under Approved Code of Practice L8 paragraphs 32 and 47?
Following on from that, and very closely linked to it, we would review the usage of the outlets in the building. Where we suspect that outlets are not being used regularly we should consider permanently removing these, along with all associated pipework, to eliminate any risks. Where it is identified that these outlets will be intermittently used (possibly seasonal or kept for emergency situations) a suitable flushing regime should be instigated.
The frequency and method for carrying out this task needs to be considered alongside the water hygiene risk assessment and the type of people likely to use the water system in the future. What evidence can you produce to show that you have considered or reviewed the usage of the outlets fitted to each water system?
Maybe you have a plan in place to review this once all colleagues have settled into their new working patterns. In this case you will still need to consider the risks posed while carrying out this investigatory work.
If we next think about water temperature, under-occupied and under-utilised buildings (especially those without enhanced flushing regimes) will see more occasions where water temperatures will be outside the recommended ranges for controlling the growth of waterborne bacteria, including Legionella.
In cold water systems you may see additional heat gain and cold water temperatures consistently above 20°C. If this is the case, then the mitigation you have put in place in the first two areas above has not been effective and a further review will be required.
In hot water
For hot water systems, especially those that do NOT have circulating systems, a reduction in usage will lead to greater time periods where the water is allowed to cool down between usages. Over time this will lead to water sample results returning adverse effects and possibly people becoming unwell. What is your process for reviewing specification results identified during routine monitoring and maintenance?
The steps above are some brief suggestions on the way you can provide safe water quality to those returning to the workplace. If you are confident that your organisation can satisfy the requests of any auditors and prove that changes have at least been considered then you are in a good place. If, however, you have identified that there is work to do, now is the time to start this process.
*There are differences between healthcare and non-healthcare regulations.
Craig Morning is a senior consultant at Water Hygiene Centre Ltd