Legionnaires’ Disease: Is Your Hotel at Risk?

Hoteliers operate in a constantly evolving business environment with new challenges regularly emerging. However, these businesses still face a threat that first surfaced in 1976 in Philadelphia: Legionnaires’ disease1. The CDC reported over 6,000 cases of the disease in the United States in 2015,2 and the total number of people who have contracted the disease increased four-fold since 20003. The potential impact of an outbreak to a hospitality business can be crippling, as 10% of Legionnaires’ cases are fatal4.

What is Legionnaires’ disease?5

Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria, which is naturally found in freshwater environments such as lakes and streams. Health issues occur when Legionella bacteria spreads and grows in human-made water systems such as hot tubs, air conditioning units, decorative fountains, or large plumbing systems. People who inhale small droplets of the contaminated water in the air are at risk for Legionnaires’ disease.  Importantly though, Legionnaires’ disease can’t be transmitted person-to-person. If Legionnaires’ disease is diagnosed quickly, antibiotics can cure the disease.

How does Legionnaires’ disease impact hotels?

Hotels are particularly at risk for a Legionella outbreak, as their business model and premises both contain many of the factors necessary to facilitate the spreading of Legionnaires’ disease.

Of course, hotels welcome new guests to their business on a daily basis. If a hotel has Legionella present in its water systems, the influx of new guests increases the number of people potentially impacted by the conditions present in the hotel. Guests who are older, are current or former smokers, have a chronic illness, or have kidney/liver failure are more susceptible to Legionnaires’. In addition, hotels often contain some or all of the major water systems that are frequently tied to outbreaks of Legionnaires’, such as indoor swimming pools, ice machines, air conditioning systems, or any lobby water features. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease occurs when two or more people are exposed to the bacteria and get sick in the same place at the same time. The outbreaks can be difficult to identify, especially in hospitality locations, as many guests often return home before showing symptoms. Nonetheless, with the upward trend in reported cases, hotels not only need to work hard to prevent the growth of Legionella bacteria, but also be prepared to respond to an outbreak of the disease.

Mitigating Legionella risk

The risk a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak poses to a hotel business would stem from a laundry list of potential plaintiff allegations. These may include failure to protect your guests, failure to maintain equipment that contributed to an outbreak, improper water system design, or failure to notify guests of the presence of Legionella bacteria.

Properly managing Legionella risk requires a water management plan that includes engineering, maintenance, risk management, and legal resources. This team should work together to identify potential exposure points and assess the building’s overall water system risk. At its core, the team should concern itself with establishing and monitoring control limits of Legionella bacteria, and identifying corresponding corrective actions should these limits not be reached. It is vitally important for this team to document its activities and initiatives and retain accurate records. Incorporating checklists for housekeeping personnel to help monitor water systems is another component of a thoughtful water management plan. In addition, hotels should develop a strategy for monitoring rooms or areas that are not used for more than three days at a time. A water management plan can only protect guests and employees if it is adhered to, monitored, and regularly updated.

Next Steps

Hospitality businesses should visit the CDC’s page on environmental investigations tools for Legionalla for more information and tools relating to implementing and maintaining a successful environmental plan. This website provides a number of resources related to monitoring for the disease and responding to outbreaks if and when they occur. An experienced insurance broker can assist you to develop your environmental risk management plan and in placing insurance that responds to these types of events.

References and Resources:

1. https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/fastfacts.html

2. https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/fastfacts.html

3. CDC vital signs 2016

4. CDC Vital Signs 2016

5. https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/fastfacts.html

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