Sunday, 10 June 2012

Legionnaires outbreak linked to cutbacks

No Cuts! Full Stop! reproduces this article from today's Scottish Sunday Herald 10/06/012 linking the Legionnaires outbreak in Edinburgh to cutbacks...

Revealed: the cutbacks to Legionnaires' watchdogs

THE outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Edinburgh has come against a backdrop of severe cuts in the number of health inspectors and safety checks meant to prevent the life-threatening bug from spreading.

Experts are warning that cutbacks in the number of health and safety inspectors and the amount of inspections could have allowed the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Edinburgh to happen and may cause future outbreaks elsewhere in Scotland.

The Sunday Herald can reveal that City of Edinburgh Council has cut its environmental health officers by 18% in the last three years – double the country's average cut of 9%. The number of officials responsible for protecting public health in the city has dropped from 61 in 2009 to 50 in 2011.

The UK Government's Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has also suffered serious cuts. Its UK field operations division, which is responsible for inspections, has lost 18% of its staff – more than 250 jobs – between 2007 and 2011.

According to the trade union, Prospect, which represents HSE inspectors, the number of preventative workplace inspections was slashed by a third last year on the instructions of UK ministers, from 30,000 to 20,000 a year.

The cuts were described as "staggering, shocking and savage" by Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environment research group at Stirling University.

He said: "The crippling impact of cuts in staff numbers and resources is now threatening public health.

"The Legionnaires' disease outbreak has happened against a backdrop of serious and continuing UK cuts, loss of staff and expertise and significant demoralisation in two crucial bodies involved – the HSE and environmental health services. These cuts must raise serious doubts about the capacity of such bodies to deal with similar future threats to public health."

A whole raft of businesses had been recategorised as "low risk" to enable the number of inspections to be reduced, Watterson argued. "The Legionnaires' outbreak should be a wake-up call because so-called 'low-risk' premises such as offices and large shopping premises have cooling towers that require continuing regular inspection as well as proper maintenance if public health is to be protected."

It was hard to imagine how the HSE could effectively enforce the regulations meant to control the risk of legionella with an ever-shrinking group of staff, he added. "Saving money by cuts in personnel and resources could cost lives in the future."

Prospect also said that the Legionnaires' outbreak highlighted the risks of cutting back on proactive inspections.

Simon Hester, chairman of the union's HSE branch, said: "It is a stark reminder of the danger of denigrating health and safety at work and the value of effective inspection by the HSE.

"Due to spending cuts, HSE's occupational health expertise is extremely thinly spread, which has led to a lack of sufficient advice in the field. It is always preferable to avoid incidents that harm people, rather than merely investigating after the event."

Hester added: "Prospect believes that decisions on proactive inspection should be based on professional expertise and that adequate resources are made available. HSE needs more inspectors, not less." The cuts to Edinburgh's environmental health officers were disclosed to the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland, a professional body, in response to a freedom of information request.

Across all of Scotland's 32 local authorities, the number of such officers has dropped from 556 in March 2009 to 506 in September 2011.

The institute's chief executive, Tom Bell, who previously worked as an environmental health officer for Edinburgh City Council, said the council had lost some very experienced staff. Bell said that common sense would suggest there is "some kind of relationship" between cutbacks and the Legionnaires' outbreak.

He said: "Most people would feel that if you reduce the resource, there is the potential for problems to develop and not be remedied or identified, and operators not required to address them." The number of Edinburgh council departments had also been reduced from about 16 to four, he said.

"You're now a very small part of a very large department, so your voice is very hard to hear. It does make the job more difficult when it comes to arguing for resources."

Bell was worried about the "soft touch" regulatory agenda being promoted by the UK Government. "Inspections should be related to the actual risk, and not be about helping businesses," he said.

Edinburgh City Council denied that staff numbers had an impact on inspections, as there was only one site with cooling towers that it was responsible for in the city.

A council spokesman said: "Responsibility for enforcement falls to either local authorities or the HSE, depending on the premises or work activity. Premises within the council's enforcement remit are inspected in accordance with an ongoing inspection programme.

"Work is ongoing to identify the source of the [Legionnaires'] outbreak."

The HSE insisted that the number of inspectors in Scotland has remained stable since 2008, though there had been a drop from 184 in 2010 to 174 in 2012.

A spokeswoman said: "HSE has maintained the broad number of inspectors and other staff based in Scotland over the last five years. It is wrong to claim that numbers have been significantly reduced."