Tram depot legionella bug sparks health cuts fear

Legionella was discovered at the tram depot. Picture: Getty
Legionella was discovered at the tram depot. Picture: Getty
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THE discovery of legionella at the new tram depot has sparked concerns about the potential human cost of health inspector cuts – after their ranks were slashed by a quarter last year.

Traces of the potentially deadly bacteria were detected at the Gogar terminal last September, less than a year after a major outbreak in the Capital killed three men.

Today, one of the country’s biggest unions argued that cutting the number of environmental health officers (EHOs) amid huge public concern over the horsemeat scandal and last year’s legionnaire’s outbreak in Edinburgh was undermining their work in protecting the public.

According to figures released under freedom of information, Edinburgh’s team of EHOs was reduced from 50 in 2010-11 to just 37 a year later, while the number of health and safety inspections fell from 1091 to 897.

Dave Watson, Unison’s head of bargaining and campaigns, said: “Health and safety should be about preventing accidents. For example, the legionnaire’s outbreak in Edinburgh again followed a cut in inspections.

“However, EHOs simply don’t have the time to do preventative work. What we are seeing in relation to horsemeat today will be replicated in other areas, unless we stop the cuts and the obsession with light touch regulation.”

Mr Watson said the unions were getting feedback from members in environmental health departments that staffing cuts were undermining their work.

And he added: “Our members can see departments depleted, with the loss of experienced staff, ‘lighter touch’ regulation, fewer proactive inspections, preventive and educational work, with other essential services, as well as food safety – particularly health and safety – being cut back drastically.

“It is not scaremongering to say that this is a very worrying picture and many staff are under incredible pressure.”

Companies are required to carry out their own testing to identify and sterilise legionella under current legislation. Should they fail to maintain appropriate records, they can be prosecuted. Environmental health officers are deployed to ensure firms are complying with a testing framework outlined by the Health and Safety Executive.

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack has reissued calls for a public inquiry into last year’s legionnaire’s outbreak, which led to the deaths of three men and more than 100 people treated.

“With last year’s outbreak of legionnaires’ disease still fresh in the memory, the discovery of legionella at Gogar will understandably provoke public concern,” she said. “I am relieved that the council appears to have taken swift action to address this latest incident.

“I still believe we need a public inquiry to establish the circumstances of the outbreak including the inspection regime. We need to know if there are lessons that can be learned and whether cuts to numbers of environmental health officers had any impact. When news of the outbreak emerged, did the council and HSE have enough feet on the ground to react to the situation?”