When we normally think about golf courses, we tend to imagine garishly coloured trousers, the equally colourful use of odd words/shouts to warn fellow golfers of imminent danger (courtesy of wayward shots) and possibly a long-running series of anecdotes by the late, great comedian, Ronnie Corbett. Yet there’s much more to concern golfers (and indeed, unsuspecting members of the public) when it comes to hidden dangers lying in wait on golf courses. By which, we refer to more than merely sand traps (or bunkers to the uninitiated).
The truth of the matter is we’re talking about the sort of water hazard which doesn’t appear on any golf course scorecards or on the glossy cover of club brochures. The sort which can lead to serious health consequences and which stretch far beyond compromising a golfer’s handicap.
Unlike ‘fore’ and ‘birdie’, the word ‘legionella’ is not a word typically associated with golf, but there’s a strong argument that it needs to be. Not least because the bacteria can and does manifest itself in what might appear to be the unlikeliest of situations. And golf courses (like many other sports facilities) aren’t immune to legionella taking a grip, should the threat of its presence be left undetected.
What is Legionella?
Widely described as a type of pneumonia which affects the upper respiratory tract, the onset of Legionnaires’ disease (the public face of the bacteria when it takes hold) tends to see those that fall victim to it suffering flu-like symptoms. Contracted by the inhalation of small droplets of infected water (usually in aerosol or vaporized form, and therefore largely going unnoticed), the more susceptible of individuals can experience life-threatening symptoms if not diagnosed and treated promptly.
Commonly distributed via everyday water outlets (think domestic showerheads and taps through to leisure club hot tubs and ornamental fountains), is just as likely to compromise a golf course as it is other places where people gather for recreational purposes. Be they gyms, saunas, sports stadiums and various other structures which support an often elaborate internal water storage system. Should the temperature fluctuations exceed 20°C and not surpass 50°C, then this is considered the danger zone. In as much as it allows for the spawning, survival, growth and indeed, largely unseen proliferation of legionella bacteria within a water storage system.
Why Golf Courses in Particular?
Facilities management staff and maintenance teams at golf courses have the potential to come into contact with various water-based outlets which could, should the conditions prove favourable, encourage the distribution of the legionella bacteria. One such glaring example of a scenario would be water spray-based course irrigation systems, which are used on a daily basis at golf courses and clubs the length and breadth of the UK. And where grounds staff are intrinsically involved in the setting up and operation of such equipment and course installations.
Away from the well-watered lush green fairways and greens themselves, there’s also the clubhouse to consider. Another core concern when it comes to awareness of water hygiene issues and the risk posed by various bacteria, including legionella. Within a golf clubhouse there will be showers for members and visitors, perhaps even spa baths and hot tubs, depending on annual fees and whether or not the course is on the major tournament rota. Having said that, most golfing establishments these days tend to offer impressive facilities for members and visitors alike.
So What Needs to be Done?
It doesn’t take much imagination to know that scores of people could be exposed to contaminated water while playing a round on, or indeed, merely crossing a golf course; when considering the implication of water sprinkling devices favoured by maintenance staff as a means of hydrating a golf course. That’s not to say the general public should fear being vulnerable to waterborne (yet vapour-spread) bacteria every time they find themselves on a golf course, as by and large cases of legionella being discovered in this recreational context are few and far between. Neither however, should complacency be allowed to flourish; especially not amongst those responsible for looking after golf course.
Which is why it’s crucial that staff from the top down, are well aware of the legionella control practices and protocols, with regards to running a golf course. In terms of the management of these fundamental issues, and from the get-go there’s the identifying of the primary water-containing systems; all of which will need to be subjected to a legionella risk assessment. Thereafter a routine management system and compliancy schedule will be thrashed out and drawn up by water treatment experts, so as to establish what measures need to be taken going forward. In all instances it’s hugely important that any type of sports and leisure facility adopt a proactive approach and hands-on attitude to water hygiene across the board, and legionella in particular, to safeguard all parties.
What Does a Course of Action to Combat the Risk of Legionella Involve?
Due to the very seasonal nature of some recreational pursuits, a number of sports and leisure facilities tend to experience greater use at different times of the calendar year; and as a result of this, will see periods of low water usage. If and when this situation arises, with it is the increased threat associated with legionella growth and subsequent bacterial proliferation within a water storage system. Golf course can fall into this category, for the simple reason that they are enjoyed by more people more often during the spring and summer months, than they are in autumn and more especially, winter.
And more pivotally when discussing the hypothetic presence of bacteria lying dormant in less frequently used water stores, during summer temperatures the need for irrigation of dried out courses is far greater than during the damper autumn and winter months. So there’s a fair chance that less water reserves are plundered on a routine basis to keep the golf course in good shape; the upshot of which might see water reserves untapped and moreover, internal systems, pipework and general water-carrying infrastructure flushed out in fewer instances. Conversely however, more extreme temperate fluctuations during the traditionally hot months could see the stored water temperatures enter the acknowledged danger zone (between 20-45°C and where nutrients are available). Below 20°C and the bacteria remains dormant, while should temperatures exceed 60°C then the bacteria won’t survive.
Therefore, What Does a Course of Action Look Like?
Addressing the key issues surrounding the control of legionella from golf course perspectives, and both preventative and management measures mirror the policies identified for other buildings and grounds. In as much as they should always include removing dead legs and dead ends, while ensuring elevated temperatures in the hot-water system (as touched on above), together with the periodic disinfection and permanent chlorination of the cold-water system. All of which are instructions which form the backbone (and immediate legacy) of a thorough legionella risk assessment, undertaken by water treatment specialists.
Focusing implicitly on legionella control in golf course management, and those employees responsible for the on-going maintenance must strictly adhere to the following codes of conduct;
- Arranging/overseeing a risk assessment, and thereafter implementing an appropriate programme for controlling Legionella. This should envelope all water uses at the club (including irrigation and club house facilities).
- Appoint a ‘Responsible Person’ who is competent enough (and is in possession of sufficient authority and knowledge of the installation) to help instigate the measures needed to comply with the letter of the law.
- Maintenance staff need to be learned in the area of control measures, as well as familiar with the mechanics and components instrumental in the undertaking of weekly/monthly tasks. They should also be well versed in identifying and reporting changes as and when they occur (for example, if water temperature differs from normal).
- Control temperature, which is imperative when tasked with inhibiting the growth of legionella. In effect this means ensuring that both hot and cold internal water reservoirs remain hot and cold at all times (with temperatures constantly monitored in line with the risk assessment). As it may sometimes prove difficult to control temperatures in stored water - and distribution methods - in warm weather, additional controls (such as chemical dosing) may be required.
- Keep the water in the system flowing as much as possible, with particular care taken where water is stored in large tanks; making sure that they’re not left to stagnate. By a similar token, it’s equally crucial to flush the systems out; especially when club house rooms are vacant or any part of the system is out of use for a prolonged period.
- Periodically check both hot and cold water stored, with a keen eye on any debris or scale which might have appeared since last time it was monitored. Any build-up in tanks and/or pipework can provide a breeding ground for legionella bacteria
- Set about removing any redundant pipework from irrigation and/or conventional hot/cold water systems.
- Prepare a written/documented scheme of control for managing (in terms of prevention and control) the risk posed by legionella bacteria, and keep and maintain these all-important records of a monitoring regime imposed. Being mindful to include weekly/monthly flushing and temperature checks, such records details the recognised risk systems and is bespoke to an individual organisation/company
- In addition to the above, carry out timely reviews of the initial risk assessment, especially noting/revising/amending records should any changes to the way in which the system operates be actioned.
- With a view to confirming that microbiological control is being adhered to, legionella sampling is another series of tests which can be routinely performed to instil confidence that existing procedures and practices remain fit for purpose
- Employees need to be brought up to speed with regards to the threat associated with legionella bacteria, and be educated as to the symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease.