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July 20, 2008

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Cider-maker and contractor to pay GBP 600k over Legionnaires’ disease outbreak

Cider-maker HP Bulmer and its specialist water treatment contractor Nalco were equally responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Hereford in 2003, in which two died and 26 members of the public fell ill.

The companies were fined £300,000 each, plus full prosecution costs of £50,000 each, at Hereford Crown Court on 1 July, after pleading guilty to contravening s3(1) of HSWA 1974 by not ensuring the safety of the public.

The court heard that HP Bulmer had employed Nalco as part of its strategy to manage the potential risk from legionella bacteria as a result of the use of evaporative water-cooling towers at Bulmer’s site in Hereford. Nalco had been given notice to clean towers 9 and 15, which were only operated for three months a year.

 “It was short notice, and although only one person was available, and he realised the job was too much for him, he was told to go ahead with the clean anyway,” HSE investigating inspector Tony Woodward explained to SHP.

The inspector said the worker had done the best he could, but did not remove and decontaminate the ‘pack’, the plastic packing material inside the towers over whose surface area the water trickles as warm air blasted up through the gaps, leading to heat transfer.

“The way the worker’s worksheet was designed implied he had removed the pack. A computerised certificate of cleansing was produced and sent to Bulmer,” he explained.

In addition, scale and deposits, corrosion, and rusting occurred on metal casing to the towers. “Legionella bacteria absolutely love the particles in water and the ions produced as a result of corrosion of metal, together with warmth,” the inspector explained.

Inspector Woodward noted that the HSE’s ACoP L8 on the control of legionella bacteria in water systems recommends that where towers are used intermittently, they should be cleaned with the pack removed: “However, this would have entailed scaffolding access to the tower, but that was not done, because insufficient notice had been given.”

The towers were eventually shut down and given a thorough clean. “It took five men nearly a week to do it, so one man doing two towers in a day is not a thorough clean,” said the inspector.

Mitigation was given by both firms that they were of previous good character, and had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity. Because of this the judge reduced the total fine and costs to £700,000 from the £1 million he originally considered.

Bulmer said it accepted it lacked knowledge, so had employed specialist contractors. It said it thought it was reasonable for it to expect a standard of performance from those contractors, which they did not give.

Nalco said it provided the service for which it had been contracted; Bulmer should have known what was required and given it reasonable notice for cleaning the towers.

But inspector Woodward countered: “The fact that building users engage a specialist contractor does not mean that they have complied with the law; they must work with the contractor and ensure they are receiving the service required. Equally, specialist contractors and sub-contractors must provide their clients with the expertise which they have been engaged for.”

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