Martin Hannan: Let source feel full force of law

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It’s become fashionable to knock “health and safety” people, but there’s no sane person in Edinburgh ridiculing H&S workers right now. Not for the first time we are relying on the public health services, including environmental health officers (EHOs), to guide us through a major health crisis.

I remain nonplussed why the devastating legionnaires’ disease outbreak has attracted such little international attention, though I suspect the local tourist board is quite happy about that. For there to be more than 80 suspected and confirmed cases, including the death of Mr Robert Air, makes this the worst outbreak of the disease in Scotland, and one of the worst in British history.

There must be a full inquiry into this outbreak, and soon. The sad death of Mr Air makes it likely that Scotland’s unique Fatal Accident Inquiry system will be used to find out just exactly what happened in the run-up to his death.

For we need to know about the infection of so many people, some of whom, it seems, may yet die. A Fatal Accident Inquiry is limited in what it can do, however, so when this outbreak is over, a full public inquiry must be considered.

After all, the health and lives of thousands of people were put at risk by this outbreak that was supposed to be a thing of the past due to statutory inspections and regular cleaning.

What makes it even more worthy of open investigation is that safety precautions such as chemical treatment of cooling towers and air vents clearly failed. We need to know why that happened, who was responsible for the failure, and what can be done to stop it happening again. Meantime, we must trust our health and safety professionals to restore normality. I have every confidence they will do so.

At the weekend I attended the funeral of one such H&S expert, my friend Allastair Brown, who died suddenly at the age of 58. He had worked in the oil and gas industry for many years, latterly as a highly respected H&S practitioner. It was an extension of Allastair’s great humanity that he could not see why people should be injured or die while simply doing their job, so he worked hard to become a renowned safety expert in that most dangerous of industries.

On one occasion in the Middle East, his knowledge and quick decisions saved the lives of possibly dozens of people threatened by a potential pipeline disaster which he averted.

So you’ll forgive me if this column is coloured by the knowledge of Allastair and the many good colleagues I knew in the late 1980s when I was a public relations officer working alongside the city’s environmental health department led by that most energetic figure, the late Dick Carson.

It was Carson who almost single-handedly alerted this city to the problems of car pollution. He also tackled lead piping, slum landlords, the disgrace that was Crown immunity, and many other problems. I am convinced his campaign against toxocara canis, the disease spread by dog faeces, saved many children from blindness after it was picked up nationally.

Carson’s enthusiasm made his department pro-active in challenging a whole host of environmental problems, and as far as I know, even if there have been cutbacks in their numbers, there will have been no reduction in the personal qualities of the city’s environmental health officers.

I suspect their reaction would have been the same as any of us confronted with this awful disease up close – mild panic. Legionnaires’ disease is spread in such a randomly fast way that, unlike an E.coli incident that can usually be traced to a single part of the food chain, this death-dealing bug continues to strike without warning against the general populace.

It is hated by EHOs and everyone in the public health services. The worst aspect of legionnaires’ is that it can take weeks to find the source, and it is that what makes EHOs fearful.

But after that initial reaction, their training and experience would kick in, as I saw happen on so many occasions. Calmly and methodically, the EHOs will have worked their way through all the possibilities and scenarios and started the inspections of the possible sources, working alongside the Health and Safety Executive which, in case it has not been realised, is still under Westminster Government control and thus has suffered cuts in its budget.

Despite assurances to the contrary, given that the HSE has much greater responsibilities for the inspection regime, the suspicion must remain that coalition cuts have affected this vital service. We need facts and figures in open forum to prove that is not the case.

I suspect that if Dick Carson had been alive and in charge today, government ministers and the owners of a lot of cooling towers would have been flayed in public for their neglect. He would have no hesitation in reminding them of their public duty, and would have threatened them with the corporate homicide law which is now in force.

Put simply, if the source or sources had been regularly treated, the outbreak would not have occurred. Therefore, entirely preventable death and injury has been caused by someone’s neglect. That realisation is just one of the horrors of this dreadful time for the Capital.