Most of us have heard the frightening statistics regarding the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx. As of this date, 12 people have died and more than 120 additional cases have been reported. But what exactly is this mysterious malady affecting so many at one time and what are its causes?
Legionnaires’ disease is a common name for a type of pneumonia caused by breathing in water mist containing the bacteria. It was named after a 1976 outbreak in Philadelphia during an American Legion convention that killed more than 30 people and sickened almost 200 more. Most of us rarely hear about this disease unless it is part of a large outbreak, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, anywhere from 8,000-18,000 people are hospitalized each year in the U.S. as a result of Legionnaires’. The current outbreak in the Bronx seems to point to the building’s cooling towers that are used as part of their air conditioning, ventilation, and heating systems, but the bacteria can be found in almost any warm water system or device that disperses water including humidifiers, spas and whirlpools, and dental water lines. The disease is not contagious and can only be caused by breathing in the bacteria- laden vapor.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) has put out a fact sheet for workers and unions. Workers performing routine maintenance on or in cooling towers and other water systems may need to wear respiratory protection. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the employer to determine hazards and provide training programs if the use of a protective device is required. Additionally, there are recommendations regarding assessment of work sites for potential Legionnaires’ disease. Cooling towers should be regularly maintained and cleaned with the use of chlorine and unused water lines should be frequently flushed.
In this recent Bronx outbreak, the New York City Health Commissioner issued an order to all owners of buildings with cooling towers to disinfect all of them within 14 days of receiving the order and keep records of the inspection and disinfection. Those workers with the task of cleaning and decontaminating the towers are advised to wear protective respirators as well as rubber gloves, goggles, and protective clothing.
Every worker is entitled to a safe work place. According to NYCOSH, certain groups of workers are at increased risk of exposure to Legionnaires’ disease, including those who maintain, clean, decontaminate, or work in close proximity to water systems and system components such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers, humidifiers, potable water heaters and holding tanks and pipes that may contain stagnant warm water.
Workers should be aware of Legionnaires’ disease symptoms, which include fever, headache, joint aches, and fatigue, that can deteriorate into difficulty breathing, chills, chest pain, and gastrointestinal symptoms. As Legionnaires’ is a type of pneumonia, it can be diagnosed with a chest x-ray and lab tests to confirm the bacteria. While most in the Bronx outbreak who died had a compromised immune system, early treatment with antibiotics can lessen the symptoms and improve the changes of recovery.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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